God's Own Horn: Joshua Redman

He might have worked out on trumpet for a while -- after all, it was a trumpet that blew down the walls of Jericho -- and from what I understand, He's planning another trumpet blast to announce the End of Time.But when God parted the light from the darkness, the sound that echoed through the newly formed cosmos was tenor sax -- something like the fanfare beginning of John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme." When Adam first caught sight of Eve, God was there, blowing something like Sonny Rollins' "There Are Such Things." And when the pressure of being the supreme being gets to him, He Who Has No Name busts out with something like Lester Young's "DB Blues."You know God don't play alto. Not trumpet. Not piano, drums, trombone or guitar. God plays tenor sax, just like Coltrane, Young, Rollins, Coleman Hawkins, Dexter Gordon, Wayne Shorter and so many of the other musical deities who have walked this earth.God plays tenor, and that's Joshua Redman's only problem.Redman, who just turned 27, is a sensation with both jazz critics and the record-buying public. He's been named Jazz Artist of the Year and Best Tenor Saxophonist by Down Beat magazine, and seen his CDs sell in six figures -- no mean feat for acoustic jazz.He's performed with and won the respect of veterans players like Milt Jackson and Elvin Jones, and is currently in the middle of a West Coast tour with his own band. He's sitting on top of the world, really, except for one thing -- as the "young lion" of the tenor sax, God's own horn, he finds himself compared to musicians no mortal could hope to emulate."I resist the whole concept of the 'young lion,' " Redman said, sounding a little testy for the first time in the course of our half-hour phone interview.Redman was easygoing and cooperative, eager to respond to questions he's probably answered hundreds of times -- despite feeling a little peaked, thanks to some flu bug making the rounds on the East Coast. Yet when asked The Inevitable Question about how it feels to be a young challenger on an instrument that has such a glorious legacy, Redman suddenly sounded a little annoyed."There have been so many talented young musicians in the history of jazz," he said. "I don't want to have to be compared to them."Who can blame Redman for being a little frustrated? Clarinet players don't have to put up with this crap. People don't go to fine young bassists, say, Christian McBride, and say, "You're pretty good, but are you better than Charles Mingus?" They don't ask pianists like Marcus Roberts or Cyrus Chesnut how they compare themselves to Art Tatum. Yet every young tenor, it seems, is asked to slay Coltrane, Rollins, et al."If I felt like I had to be John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins, I probably wouldn't be playing music, because I'd fall short every time," Redman said. "But it's not about living up to their standards. Hopefully, I have my own qualities, something that is unique to myself that I can bring to my music, so I can be evaluated on my own."Redman's background is certainly unique. He's the son of Dewey Redman, who played with Ornette Coleman's uncompromising quartet in the mid-'60s, with the excellent Old and New Dreams thereafter, and enjoyed a universally respected tenure as a leader. Interestingly, young Joshua didn't plan on playing jazz, partly as a result of his seeing the dues his father had to play."I saw how hard it was to make a living for yourself and your family, and how hard it was to play the music you wanted to play," he said.Redman did a lot of playing, but little practicing, he said. He devoted himself to his schooling and wanted to be an attorney. He went to Harvard, where he graduated summa cum laude , was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and was then accepted into Yale Law School.Then Fate stepped in.Redman decided to take a year's deferment and hang out in New York City. "My intention was not to get involved in the jazz scene," he recalled. "My intention was to have a good time."But Redman found himself living with a group of serious musicians -- people who practiced, talked and lived music 24 hours a day. "It started to rub off on me," he recalled.Redman started playing a lot, too, and was soon getting paid for it, playing with people like Charlie Haden, Jack DeJohnette, Paul Motion and Joe Lovano."The more I worked, the more I realized how much I loved music, and how much jazz meant to me," said Redman.He quickly became one of the most-talked-about artists in the music scene, signed with Warner Brothers, and released a string of albums -- Joshua Redman, Wish, Moodswing, and the recent Spirit of the Moment: Live At The Village Vanguard -- all of which have been well-received by critics.That's because Redman is a "storyteller" -- his improvisations have a dramatic structure that seems to come naturally, and that's a rare gift at any age. Also, he's been willing to use certain rhythmic styles -- gospel and funk, primarily -- that aren't much explored in acoustic jazz. His recordings always have a joie de vivre that a lot of "serious" jazzers lack.You'll find jazz aficionados who'll tell you his playing isn't as accomplished as Joe Lovano's, as versatile as Branford Marsalis' or as dynamic as David Murray's. The tenor is that kind of instrument -- people can't help making lists, it seems. But ultimately, Redman's right: it's pointless to compare his playing to Murray's, Marsalis', Lovano's -- or anybody else's.Redman makes infectious and affecting music that is solidly within the jazz tradition, yet flexible enough to include elements not commonly used within that tradition; the response he's gotten from both critics and the record-buying public speaks for itself.These days, he's touring with a new band: Peter Martin on piano, Christopher Thomas on bass, and Brian Blade on drums, all of whom played on the Vanguard CD, plus guitarist Peter Bernstein."For a long time, I wanted to bring in another instrument so I could write harmonies to the melodies that I play," said Redman. "I finally decided on a guitar rather than a trumpet or saxophone, because guitar occupies that gray area between being another melody instrument and being a member of the rhythm section."Having a guitar in the mix will also help Redman to pursue his intention to explore new styles."I want new textures, new grooves besides the 4/4 swing groove jazz is usually played in," he said. "We'll always use that groove, but why not also use Latin grooves? Why not funk?"With this band, I feel like it's a whole new era," said Redman.It'll be an interesting ride, hearing Redman work these new elements into his music, and unlike some young lions we might name, Redman's show is bound to be fun.That should be enough to keep God happy -- not to mention Sonny Rollins.


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