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Joshua Redman's perfect jazz

By Jon Garelick

OCTOBER 26, 1998:  Of all the young and old jazz dudes out there right now, Joshua Redman is just about perfect. That's not to say he's head and shoulders better than everyone else, or that his conception is of the radical, pathbreaking type to put him up on the Mount Rushmore of jazz with Armstrong, Parker, Coltrane, et al. In fact, he's not especially cutting-edge in any way. But let's go back to the old litmus test: lots of people are playing jazz, and jazz saxophone, differently from Joshua Redman, but is anyone playing it better? His new album, Timeless Tales (For Changing Times) (Warner Bros.), and his sold-out show last Saturday night with his quartet at the Berklee Performance Center confirm that there's nothing wrong with Joshua Redman.

I don't mean that as a backhanded compliment. Jazzheads always want more from their stars, and they're right to want it. But how do you work firmly within the tradition and avoid what the critic Francis Davis complained about a few years ago as "the sound of no surprise"? Redman has balanced his traditionalist bent with a love of contemporary pop and a singularly ungimmicky showman's stride on stage.

At Berklee, he entered the dimly lit stage and blew a short, tentative, tuning-up note on his tenor. He tried two more notes, then a three-note figure. He assayed longer phrases, then lines, returning to the three-note figure as a rhythmic motif and kind of tonal grounding. Isolated, deep, house-filling foghorn blasts alternated with high, false-register whispers. The three-note figure continued to flit about through all the registers -- that and all manner of technique-defying filigree outlined by dramatic silences. Gradually a fragment of melody emerged, and it was clear that the original three notes were the opening syllables of the lyric to "Summertime" (covered on the new album). When the band came in (after five or six minutes of solo Redman), they took the tune up-tempo, replete with an out-of-tempo piano-trio passage and double-timing runs for horn and rhythm section. The big finish came after a climax of arpeggiating "sheets of sound" from Redman.

"Summertime" was an object lesson in how Redman can reconcile all manner of technical showiness with strictly musical concerns. If there were drifting moments at the Berklee concert, they were rare. The dramatic silences, the recurring motifs -- all serve the narrative expectancy that Redman can create. His technique-defying flights and most abstract utterances fit into a larger narrative scheme. You're always confident he's taking you somewhere.

Which is one reason Redman -- as he did at Berklee -- can bring an audience down to a hush or get them screaming. I can't always say the same for his albums. Timeless Tales (the sixth album as a leader for this 29-year-old) is his most overt yet at combining pop with jazz, mixing old standards and new (it's worth noting that he's a fine jazz composer in his own right). Does Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays" belong next to Joni Mitchell's "I Had a King"? Cole Porter's "Love for Sale" with Lennon & McCartney's "Eleanor Rigby"? Sure, why not, it all depends on what you do with them. David S. Ware, for one, performs the unlikely "The Way We Were" as out-jazz exorcism, an unsettling mix of beauty, terror, and camp. Redman's album sometimes risks leaning the other way, toward a nappy-time easy-listen. Live, I liked Mitchell's melody less than what Redman did with it on his soprano-sax improvs. I'm not sure "Eleanor Rigby" works as an instrumental vehicle (it was always kind of mawkish anyway), but I got caught up in Redman's dramatic performance, where he made the musical case for its being his "My Favorite Things." (Redman can also hold his own as a writer.)

There's also his ingratiating intelligence and charm. It was as evident in his joking between-song chats with the audience at Berklee as it was when we talked over the phone a couple weeks before the show: "For me, this album is really not about trying to introduce new standards, in the sense that I'm not trying to hold up these songs as standards that jazz musicians should play. . . . It was really about trying to find other people's compositions that I was inspired to play and to play in hopefully a creative and a fresh way. . . . I do believe that jazz musicians should not limit their search for interpretive material to those golden nuggets from before 1955. I do believe that there is a lot of modern popular music out there -- or at least a little modern popular music out there -- that is completely valid for jazz interpretation. In that sense the validity of the music is determined by the musician's creativity and by the musician's desires, not by any kind of artificial standard of what is or isn't proper material."

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