The accidental jazzman
ONE OF THE most extraordinary things about saxophonist Joshua Redman’s career is that it happened at all. “I’ve been living the dream, although sometimes it can feel like a nightmare,” he laughs.
“It was never a dream I’ve had – I’ve always loved music, for the first half more as a listener than as a player. I never heard myself in that position, I was on a different track. The past 20 years have been a gift, a glorious accident.”
Those 20 years have seen him become one of the finest and most exciting saxophone players in jazz today. Redman was born in Berkeley, California, in 1969. His father, Dewey Redman, was a famous saxophonist, and while Redman was growing up, his father was living in New York playing with the likes of Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett (later in life, Redman would record two albums with his father).
His mother, Renee Shedroff, studied South Indian dance at the Centre for World Music in Berkeley, and enrolled him in classes there. Redman settled on tenor saxophone as his weapon of choice at the age of 10, and played throughout his teens with the prestigious Berkeley High School jazz band. However, while he never concentrated on jazz, practised infrequently and favoured his academic studies over music, this didn’t stop him, in the summer of 1990, from debuting with his father at New York’s Village Vanguard.
A straight-A student, Redman went on to Harvard University, graduated in 1991, and was accepted to study law at Yale. Before heading to Yale, though, Redman decided to take a year out to move in with friends in Brooklyn. Once there, he fell easily into the New York jazz scene, and in one brief, furious year, he cut his teeth in the boiler room of the New York scene in an arc that can take top players a decade.
Did his earlier non-musical experience influence his approach to jazz, once he committed to being a full-time player? “Certainly, as a human being, there is something about a little education, and how to think critically about the world and the things you see and how to ask the right question that has stood me in fairly good stead over the years.
“I can’t draw an explicit link between that and what I do as musician. Were I to do it all over again, I probably would have made the choice to study music. It would have given me that much more of a foundation and a grounding in the language that I’m now speaking. I feel like maybe there was some advantage to not having gone to music school and keeping a certain naivety but, in general, not having had that base, I certainly had to play catch-up to my peers.”
And what peers. In November 1991, Redman won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition. A record deal with Warner Bros followed, his debut album in 1993 put him on the front covers of jazz magazines, and soon he found himself playing with the likes of Jack DeJohnette, Elvin Jones, Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny.
“Just being in the room and having got to make music with them, in a sense there’s no greater inspiration,” Redman says. “To perform with all these incredible musicians, even though I had no business playing with them, there was something so generous and giving about their musical personalities; they made me feel like I belonged.
“My philosophy has always been get into a band with people that are better than you. To me, the best musicians, there is something so generous about them. They uplift you, rather than intimidate you. Even though they were light years ahead of where I was, we managed to make some good music together and I managed to not make a total fool of myself.”
Given the calibre of musicians Redman has played with since the beginning of his career, have there been moments where he has stepped into the room and felt a little anxious about the company? “I don’t want to say fear, I don’t feel I ever have fear in a musical context, even when I should. But there is unfamiliarity, a certain tension that comes from not being completely prepared or knowing you’re entering into unfamiliar territory – that is part of the jazz experience.
“I’ve always felt like jazz is as much about the adventure, the journey as about the arrival, in the moment, trying to figure it out and trying to find something, as much as about the end product.”
One facet of Redman’s music is that it’s accessible – something that’s often a dirty word in the self-regarding jazz world. “For a long time, people said that, and I kind of bristled at that. I feel like we’ve never dumbed down but I felt there was a veiled accusation there. Now, for better or worse, there’s something about my musical identity and approach maybe that is slightly more accessible than the average jazz musician playing the same sort of material.
“You reach middle age” – Redman is 43, but looks easily 10 years younger – “you start to be a little bit more reflective and accepting and at peace with who you are and what you’ve accomplished.
“The inaccessibility is in people’s perceived notions approaching it. If the music is presented as this incredibly sophisticated demanding art form, it can scare people off.”
That accessibility largely comes from Redman’s scorching riffs – his music has one foot firmly rooted in the bebop tradition, but there is a forward-looking sensibility that packs his tunes with powerful, aggressive runs and irresistible groove (his recordings with drummer Brian Blade are particularly punchy). On record, it’s charismatic and characterful; live, it can be explosive.
This week, he embarks on an Irish tour – only the second time he has played in Ireland – as part of a trio with bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. “It’s the context I’ve played the most in as a leader. I’m coming over with two of my favourite musicians, and two of my closest friends and colleagues.
“We’ve been working together regularly since 2007 but Greg and I go way back to my first record, so we go back over 20 years. Rueben started playing with Greg in 1998 and Aaron Goldberg [another close collaborator of Redman’s], and we worked a lot together over a span of four years. We never really know what we’re going to play until we get up on the bandstand and hit it.”
Redman’s tactics seem restless: he forms a group, takes it to a place, and then almost immediately tries something different. It’s a relentless approach that appears to point towards a certain workaholism.
“Someone once accused me, they said as soon as you get a band that is completely sounding great, in tune with each other and settled and ready, then you switch. It’s not entirely true,” Redman says reluctantly, convincing no one.
“Maybe if I’m scared of anything in music, it’s stasis, it’s complacency. I’m scared of being satisfied, I’m scared of competency. That been said, I do feel like when I am playing trio, especially with these guys, we’ve really gotten to a point of confidence that we can go out in that form, which is not an easy format as a player or as a listener. We can go out there and make something happen and something that’s in the moment – I think we’ve got a pretty good batting average.”
And if it doesn’t work out, there’s always law at Yale.
A Joshua Redman trio
* Redman performing Jazz Crimes with his Elastic band iti.ms/NXRzmj
* An entire concert of Joshua Redman with The Bad Plus at the Vittoria -Gasteiz Jazz Festival in July. If youre stuck for time, try the last track for size iti.ms/QhoX3t
* Redman playing St Thomas in a quartet with Brad Mehldau and Brian Blade. Yet Christian McBride still steals the show
The Joshua Redman Trio play the Button Factory, Dublin, tonight; Belltable Arts Centre, Limerick, tomorrow; Triskel in Cork on Friday; The Mac in Belfast on Saturday; and the Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, on Sunday. See note.ie