Earning His Spurs


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 circle–not 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 Metheny–driven 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 uninspired—enough 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 East–as “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 crooned–all 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 West played 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 conceptually—Rollins actually recorded it in New York later that same year, for the LP
Newk’s Time—Redman 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 concept—all 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 piano—a 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.

At Town Hall, Redman (Jewish on his mother’s side, clean-headed and gangly—picture Vin Diesel without the muscle dysmorphia) saved the best for last: a searching rumination on “Angel Eyes,” out of tempo most of the way and with minimal accompaniment. It was an ellipsis where you expected an exclamation point, but no less effective for that. Two other recent releases confirm he’s on a roll. As organ combos go, Sam Yahel’s Truth and Beauty is unusual, first of all for including an Ornette Coleman tune: “Check Up,” a rubato ballad wherein Brian Blade’s drums carry the melody. The other departure from convention is no tenor honking—together with the minor-key mysterioso of Yahel’s compositions and his light foot on the bass pedal, the swiftness and high-pitched yearning of Redman’s solos and duos with the Hammond B-3 lift the record into its own realm.

Redman is also music director and first among equals on the eight-piece SFJazz Collective’s Live 2006: 3rd Annual Concert Tour. His native Bay Area’s answer to Jazz at Lincoln Center, the collective highlights compositions by a different seminal figure each year—in this case, Herbie Hancock—while also introducing new pieces by Redman and the group’s other members. With Miles Davis in the 1960s and on his own Blue Note LPs from around the same time, Hancock was in the vanguard of young musicians figuring out something new to do with Debussy—in “Maiden Voyage,” for example, the impressionistic element isn’t just in the lapping harmonies but the rhythmic undercurrents. And thanks largely to vibist (and former Hancock associate) Bobby Hutcherson, SFJazz’s faithful reinterpretation is an artful exercise in tension and release.

Unfortunately, Hancock’s blues have always had the blands, and there isn’t much that arranger Gil Goldstein can do with finger-popping fluff like “And What If I Don’t.” And except for trumpeter Nicholas Payton’s antic, stoptime-happy “Sudoku,” a problem with the ambitious originals (including Redman’s “Parallelogram”) is that they promise more than they deliver, segueing from complexity to cooking with no development between. But this matters not at all on Eric Harland’s “Triumph,” Matt Penman’s “Frosted Evils,” and pianist Renee Rosnes’s “Mirror Image,” when Redman jumps aboard a choice background figure and takes it for a long, twisted ride. Leaving it to an improviser to put the final touches on a composition is the oldest trick in the book, but when the improviser is this on top of his game, damn if it doesn’t work every time.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting the Village Voice and our advertisers.