Taking his music higher

Joshua Redman is serious about jazz

October 07, 2002|By Steve Greenlee | Steve Greenlee,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The ascent of saxophonist Joshua Redman has been well-documented.

Growing up in Berkeley, Calif., he played in school bands and had more than a passing interest in jazz. But he had no intention of making a career in music: When he got to Harvard, he majored in urban studies. After graduating in 1991, he toyed with the idea of medical school and then was offered a spot at Yale's law school.

Later that year, he entered the prestigious Thelonious Monk music competition on a whim - and won it. A recording contract from Warner Bros. followed. His album came out in early 1992, and it had the jazz world proclaiming him the most promising saxman of his generation.

The young man has since averaged an album a year, each more serious than the one before. Not every one has been stellar, but Redman has yet to produce a mediocre record. His major statement came last year with Passage of Time, a raw, ingeniously performed song cycle that drew comparisons to John Coltrane's A Love Supreme.

Through the past decade, Redman has stayed mostly in an acoustic-quartet setting, with the exception of his excellent Freedom in the Groove record, in which he employed - tastefully and conservatively - a guitarist. But the sheer brilliance of Passage of Time created a problem: what to do next.

"I felt like it was the best record I had done," Redman, 33, says over a cup of coffee at a bookstore cafe. "Basically, for the first time I felt that I had almost hit a roadblock with the acoustic quartet. For the first time, I felt I didn't have a vision for another record. ... That was the best band that I had ever been a part of. That record and the way we sounded after that record was for me the culmination of everything I had been working on for the past 10 years."

It took him some time to decide how to begin the next chapter of his career, but now Joshua Redman is having fun - pure fun. His new album, Elastic, puts him in a groove-based jazz trio with organist Sam Yahel and drummer Brian Blade, a longtime Redman collaborator. (Redman and the Elastic Band play the Recher Theatre in Towson on Wednesday.)

How Redman's new group came about is the stuff of jazz lore. Redman loves to tell the story:

"The band started in a really casual, almost underground way," he says. "Actually, it was kind of literally an underground band, because we started playing together down at a club called Smalls in New York. It's the cutting-edge jazz club in New York. It's a basement club. It's literally underground, and it's literally small. It fits maybe 40 people. It's like being in someone's living-room basement.

"Sam Yahel had a weekly gig there on Wednesday nights for a very long time, and he was working with a group with Peter Bernstein on guitar and Brian Blade on drums, a typical organ-guitar-drums trio. There was a night sometime in the end of '98 or the beginning of '99 when Peter couldn't make it and Sam found out I was in town.

"I had jammed with him a couple of times before. Sam knew that I'd played a lot with Brian, so he called me and said, `You want to come down and play with us?' I said, `Yeah, I'm not doing anything tonight, sounds like fun.' ... There was something that felt special about the three of us playing together, even just that one time, even in the most casual sort of environment. I guess Sam felt that, because he called me again the next time he found out I was in town.

"Over a period of a couple of years, we probably did 10 or 11 gigs together."

Meanwhile, Redman was spending most of his time with his acoustic group. Then came Passage of Time and writer's block. Redman decided he would move away from the acoustic quartet, at least for now, and try something different. He wrote some sketches, chord changes and song fragments, and he was intent on working with a large funk-type band.

Then it struck him:

"One night that I was going to play down at Smalls with Sam and Brian, I just said, what the heck, maybe I'll bring some of this music down and see what it sounds like," he says. "Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would be music that would be played by saxophone, keyboards and drums. That sounded like not big enough for the music. But it just felt right. Everything just clicked."

But before Redman would release a new album under his name, he wanted to put out one under Yahel's leadership. "I realized as we were getting ready to go into the studio to record my next record that we had never documented the sound of this band as it had developed under Sam's leadership, the origins," Redman says. "It was really important for me that we get that recorded, and ... that we try to get that released before my record."

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