Joshua Redman’s new release, Compass, reminds us that any artist in any media who focuses on creativity and personal growth in the spotlight of career success is one to be admired. Highly visible since 1993, when he signed a lucrative contract with Warner Bros., toured the world with a band comprising super-sidemen Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins, followed by a peer-grouper unit with nascent titans Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride, and Brian Blade; Redman never enjoyed the luxury of space in which to beta-test ideas out of public view. The son of the innovative tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, an absentee dad in his formative years, Redman is a pragmatist, who knew from firsthand observation of his father’s material struggles how difficult the jazz life is. Yet he’s never been a play-it-safe musician, as is evident on his albums of the ’90s, which, if not formally venturesome, showed Redman digesting vocabulary from various key saxophone food groups — thematic improvisation from Sonny Rollins, high structure from Joe Henderson, harmonic poetry from Wayne Shorter, inflamed soul-spirit catching from John Coltrane, swinging harmonic logic from Dexter Gordon, telling a story with one note from Gene Ammons — and gradually molding them into a unitary voice of his own. All of those ’90s dates showcased Redman’s impeccable musicianship, unerring time, centered tone, and meticulous articulation, his enviable knack for creating elegant melodies within complex structures and infusing them with emotional content. These virtues come through on Compass, a sort of successor album to Back East from 2007, Redman’s first documented exploration of the saxophone-bass-drums trio format. Here the virtuoso expands his canvas, deploying bassists Larry Grenadier and Reuben Rogers and drummers Blade and Greg Hutchinson in trio, quartet and quintet configurations on charts infused with the off-the-map attitude that Redman also revealed on Momentum, a 2005 date with Elastic Trio, a plugged-in, groove-and-timbre oriented unit including Blade and keyboardist Sam Yahel. Within the uncluttered sonic space, Redman, who turns 40 this year, uncorks a string of well-wrought soliloquies, his mood reflective, dialogic, occasionally dark, and always musical.
About the Author
Ted Panken writes extensively about jazz for various publications, including DownBeat and Jazziz, as well as the website www.jazz.com. He's presented it on WKCR-FM in New York City since 1985. He won the 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article "Smalls Universe," published by DownBeat.