In his 1997 tome on the depressing state of current jazz, Blue: The Murder of Jazz (Da Capo), critic Eric Nisenson uses now-31-year-old saxophonist Joshua Redman as a symbol of all that's wrong with the emerging generation of jazz musicians. Though "a talented saxophonist," writes Nisenson, Redman lacks "originality and that adventurous spirit we associate with the best jazz musicians." Worse, he tells how Redman has begun "to pander to his audience," citing a performance where the son of the revered saxophonist and Ornette Coleman associate Dewey Redman worked the crowd with long-sustained tones, honks and other cheap tactics.
Nisenson's opinions are shared by those who find today's young, commercially manipulated jazz musicians lacking fire, originality or a direction of their own. But that view runs contrary to the majority; Redman has found fans across the generational spectrum. Fans of his generation like honking and shouting, in the same way that jump-hungry crowds liked honking and shouting back in the '40s. Longtime jazz fans admire Redman because he otherwise plays with taste in a style so strongly derivative of the hard-bop '60s that it might be thought of as retro. Together, these cadres have responded with well-attended concert tours and decent-for-jazz record sales (his first two Warner Bros. releases from 1993 have together sold a quarter-million copies).
So which is it? Is Redman the best and brightest torchbearer jazz has to offer? Or is he jive?
Recent signs point to no-jive. Redman has gained a new air of authority as artistic director of the much-celebrated San Francisco Jazz Festival's Spring Series 2000, an event of the kind SoCal only wishes it had. In an article on the series, The New York Times pronounced Redman a West Coast version of that great East Coast jazz champion Wynton Marsalis, someone involved in both the creative and institutional sides of the music (even though Redman now lives in New York, he was born and educated in the Bay Area). And Redman's new, all-original recording Beyond, due in April, goes far in establishing a direction that is at once hip, sure and modern, with sax solos that reflect today's socially glazed tranquillity and the accompanying disasters that churn just out of the foreground.
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The San Francisco event, which began March 17 and continues on five weekends through June, is a showcase for Redman's view of the art form and is suitably titled Traditions in Transition. In the program notes, Redman writes, "When we use the word 'tradition,' we're not referring to something wedded to the past"—a philosophy seemingly carried over to the music he has written for the new CD. Likewise, the performers booked for the San Francisco series, including a guitar night with Pat Metheny and Jim Hall and a drum weekend with Elvin Jones and Brian Blade, look to bridge generations. The first concert featured a rare appearance from saxophonist Wayne Shorter's quintet and a tenor summit that included Redman, Joe Lovano and Branford Marsalis.
While civic position gives a man credence, a musician must be judged by his music. Beyond is a defining step for Redman, one that finds him embracing simple melodic themes played over difficult time signatures. There are no other horns in the combo (with pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Gregory Hutchinson) to detract from Redman's lead. And while he may not assert genuine personality, he at least establishes character traits—serious and sinewy soprano, a reserve of strength on tenor—that reflect an honesty not previously present in his sound. He can still fall into patterns of repetition and riffing (he literally runs out of ideas on the long "Twilight . . . and Beyond" as he falls into a predictable honk).
Still, the true test of a man and his material comes on the bandstand; we'll be watching Redman's performance carefully to see if he panders to his muse or to his fans.
Joshua Redman performs with Barbie Aglio and Lisa Manor at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-8927. Thurs., April 6, 8 p.m. $22.50-$24.50.