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By Lauren Wise
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"I know what I'm striving for, and it's never to re-create music from the past," says saxophone prodigy Joshua Redman. "It's not a goal of mine to call attention to the lost greatness of the jazz legacy or how the music was so much better before."
Joshua Redman doesn't fit with the other new discoveries of jazz. Although he's only 24, Redman sounds old. His playing is colored with a weathered wisdom that adds credence to his already substantial improvisational skills. His tenor lines ache with the comfortable weariness of a jazzman who has hugged his horn for decades. As spirited and fresh as other young players sound, they seem to be merely pantomiming jazzmen when compared to the aged gutsiness of the playing on Redman's second release, Wish. Somehow, Redman grew up on the sax in triple time.
"I've really only been playing seriously for two years," says Redman by telephone from his Brooklyn home. "I never practiced music methodically or with the discipline a lot of musicians I know have. Music was always an escape, and a chance to explore the emotional and spiritual side of myself. The intellectual and analytical part of me was always directed toward academia."
Redman isn't referring to struggling his way through junior college-- he was graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard in 1991. Afterward, Redman was accepted into Yale Law School, but chose to try out his chops on the New York club scene. As opposed to his young peers who actively pursued music careers, Redman came to music through the club-slumming and the jamming he did for fun.
"I think I learn certain things quickly," Redman says of the blowing sessions that eased him into Manhattan's intimidating music scene. "Technically, I've been able to get around on the horn and improve my playing without having to really work at it. I'm not much good at emulating someone's style verbatim, but I can hear the essence of what they do and incorporate it."
Big Apple critics gave him rave reviews, resulting in JazzTimes magazine naming him "Best New Artist of 1992" even before he had recorded his debut disc. Since then, Rolling Stone magazine has crowned him "Hot Jazz Artist of 93" and Downbeat magazine has deemed him "#1 Tenor Saxophonist Talent Deserving Wider Recognition." "The great feeling of music isn't a feeling of individual conquest," Redman says. "It's a feeling that somehow your identity is contributing to the music."
This low-key attitude explains how Redman assembled a surprisingly stellar band. Not many sax men could corral a musician of Pat Metheny's status and schedule into playing the role of band guitarist. Metheny told Musician magazine last May about the first time he heard Redman play. "I was so instantly taken with him," stated the famed guitarist. "Within two or three notes, he was one of my favorite musicians of the past 15 years."
Metheny declined to be interviewed for this tour, preferring to let Redman do all the talking. Metheny's willingness to stay out of Redman's limelight is the same one that Metheny admires in the sax man's musical attitude.
"Whatever the musical situation, I try to be as generous and giving as possible," Redman says when he hears of Metheny's refusal to do interviews. "I relax all my ego boundaries and really try to give myself up to the music, to blend in to whatever is happening."
Given the level of talent in his quartet, it's amazing that Redman is capable of holding his own. Along with Metheny on guitar, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins fill out the group. Haden, however, declined to tour with the band. He has been replaced for the tour by Christian McBride. Haden nonetheless told Downbeat last June that Redman is "very mature and very deep--way ahead for his age."
"The thing that amazes me about them," says Redman of the trio that recorded the album, "is that they have such an innate sense of what's appropriate. They put themselves in service of the music."
Those three sidemen did not meet for the first time on Wish. Haden and Higgins have crossed paths many times through the years--one of the more notable times being when they played with saxophonist Ornette Coleman on a groundbreaking disc titled Science Fiction. Another tenor saxophonist at that session was Dewey Redman, Joshua Redman's father. Years later, Metheny chose the elder Redman, along with Haden, to play on an experimental venture of his own titled 80/81. The elder Redman is known for playing jazz with a rough edge. He was the sax man of choice for pianist Keith Jarrett throughout most of Jarrett's prodigious recording career. It's ironic that while Joshua was growing up, Jarrett, Higgins and Haden came to know Dewey Redman a lot better than his son did.
"I hardly saw my father when I was growing up. But I listened to a lot of his stuff. I had his records from the day I started listening to music," Joshua says of his dad. "He's one of my idols, just like Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Dexter Gordon. My dad was a huge influence on me. But not as a father. Just as another musician."
Joshua was raised in Berkeley, California, by his mother, a dancer and a librarian. He only saw his father when Dewey visited town with Jarrett's band. In Dewey's absence, the young Redman picked up the tenor--his father's instrument--when he was 10 years old. It remained of minor interest to him until he began listening to jazz while at Harvard. Hanging out with the musicians at the nearby Berklee College of Music inspired Joshua's escape to the New York scene, where his father first made his mark with Ornette Coleman in 1967. Same blood, same city, but no one could mistake the son's sound for the father's.
"I think there are a lot of differences in the way we play," admits the younger Redman. "I had a different life. I came of age in a different time. Almost everyone says we sound nothing alike, which kind of bothers me. Still, it's funny. As I grow older, I hear more of him in what I do."
Nothing resembles Joshua's link with his father more than the ever-present element that makes his Wish come true: The younger Redman moves deftly within the pack of jazz mentors improvising together on this disc. It's a skill he learned from his father, who had to contend with the moody piano turns of Jarrett and the confusing sax work of Coleman.
"When I look back at jazz tradition," says Redman of his father's peers, "I hear musicians staunchly committed to themselves and the people they are making music with at that time. It's what I strive for."
On Wish, Redman makes it sound easy. Take away the cover photo, and few listeners would be able to tell that the skilled saxophonist hadn't paid the kind of dues his father and his present bandmates have.
"If that's true," Joshua says, laughing, "then I hope in 30 years, I'll sound like I've been playing a thousand.