By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
By Steve Weinstein
By Araceli Cruz
By Gili Malinsky
By Michael Atkinson
By Luke Winkie
Whatever your opinion of the movers and shakers of '60s and '70s free jazz, you can't say they didn't pass on good genes. Start with Ravi Coltrane, Nas (the son of cornetist Olu Dara), and Deval Patrick (governor of Massachusetts and the offspring of a Sun Ra saxophonist). Charnett Moffett, Neneh and Eagle Eye Cherry, and Josh and Petra Haden are all progeny of Ornette Coleman's original inner circlenot to mention Ornette's own flesh and blood, Denardo.
Also from Coleman's extended clan, there's the late Dewey Redman's son, Joshuaalso a tenor saxophonist, he began attracting premature attention on the joint strength of his lineage and the Pat Methenydriven Wish around 1993, when he was still in his early twenties and sorting through his influences. That era's other poster boy for a youth movement that never materialized was James Carter, whose work since then has been maddeningly inconsistent, if occasionally thrilling. Redman's has been dependable but uninspiredenough to make you pine for inconsistent.
Jump to Town Hall last month, where Redman began his set (the first half of a JVC Festival saxophone doubleheader with Branford Marsalis) by introducing "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" from Oklahoma!also the opening number on his new Back Eastas "a song from a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical set in a mythical place far, far away." No joke at the expense of a state backward enough to elect global-warming denier James Inhofe to three Senate terms is too gratuitous for me, so I laughed out loud with everyone else. But the real wit was in Redman's halving and doubling of the tempo, his foghorn plunges and falsetto leaps, and the way he followed stuttered phrases with ones so flowing they practically croonedall of which, combined with the wide-open spaces he left for Reuben Rogers's bass and Eric Harland's sticks and brushes, made it unnecessary for him to add that the giddy-up for this "Surrey" was Sonny Rollins's 1957 interpretation. Double-consciousness in action, Rollins at the same age stood inside and outside the unlikely ditties he dragged into jazz, seconding the idealized sentiments expressed in their unheard lyrics even while exposing them to harsh reality by dint of an implied sarcasm. Not having come of age with those songs, Redman couldn't possibly feel the same affection for them. But he doesn't need to, because his dialogue is with Rollins.
Featuring cameos by Dewey Redman (his last recording) and fellow saxophonists Joe Lovano and Chris Cheek, but mostly letting Joshua stroll over bass and drums (Rogers and Harland, Christian McBride and Brian Blade, or Larry Grenadier and Ali Jackson), Back East shrewdly focuses that dialogue on one Rollins LP in particular. An artifact from an era when there were only two accepted schools of modern jazz, East Coast hard and West Coast cool (with smack being all they had in common), 1957's Way Out Westplayed on the irony of a New York deity touching down in L.A. by turning Rollins loose on faux boots-and-saddles favorites like "Wagon Wheels" and "I'm an Old Cowhand," and showing him posed on the cover amid the sagebrush, wearing a holster and a 10-gallon hat.
Along with putting the song from Oklahoma! where it belonged conceptuallyRollins actually recorded it in New York later that same year, for the LP Newk's TimeRedman compounds the irony by following it with "East of the Sun," a song associated with Stan Getz, the prince of cool and a West Coaster stylistically if not always geographically. Back East's gentle tweaking continues with Redman gradually bringing the rest of the world into it via Wayne Shorter's "Indian Song" (probably based on a snatch of pow-wow kitsch the movie-buff composer remembered from an obscure B-western, and here a tenor smoke-out with Lovano), Coltrane's "India" (going first, the elder Redman turns it into a harmelodic Texas stomp), and originals whose rhythmic patterns and titles ("Zarafah," "Manta 5," "Indonesia") evoke the Middle East without falling back on modes. "Cowhand" is more abstract than Rollins's version, and "Wagon Wheels" much darker and more austere, even on soprano.
So this is a concept album, but one in which the conceptall that's happened in jazz, and to increase our awareness of the world, since Rollins rode west?never inhibits the blowing. Way Out West's real significance was in opening up greater melodic possibilities for Rollins by dispensing with pianoa lesson that Redman seems to have taken to heart. I've heard wags describe Back East as the best Sonny Rollins album since Branford Marsalis's Trio Jeepy (1988), which is as unfair to Redman as it is to Rollins. Unlike Marsalis (who slavishly copied Rollins's mannerisms circa 1964 right down to the close miking that allowed us to hear his inhalation between notes), Redman gets Rollins's jokes. More than that, he realizes the core of Rollins's style is thematic improvisation. The only noodling on Back East is his encounter with Cheek, featuring them both on sopranoI guess something about that horn lends itself. Among the sidemen, Jackson and Grenadier work best as a team in reconciling the increased elbow room that going piano-less allows for drums with the added chording responsibilities it requires from the bass. Departing from concept, Redman gives the last word to his fatheron alto for "GJ," an impassioned ballad dedicated to his infant grandson that also stands as a touching valediction.