In conversation with joshua redman
"They're all for Obama," Joshua Redman said towards the end of a post-Inauguration Day concert at Manhattan's Highline Ballroom. "Every song we ever played up 'til now, and every song we'll ever play—before we even knew who he was, they were all for Obama. All of jazz was for Obama."
In keeping with the spirit of the occasion, Redman and his ensemble (bassists Larry Grenadier and Ruben Rogers; drummers Brian Blade and Greg Hutchinson) sustained an ebullient mood on a repertoire drawn from his new recording, Compass—in contrast with their album interpretations of the material, which have a subdued, wintry ambience. Following Back East, the saxophone virtuoso's first documented exploration of the saxophone-bass-drums trio format, Redman extends his reach on Compass, deploying his personnel in trio, quartet, and quintet configurations. The music is made with the same open-ended attitude that he also revealed on the albums Elastic and Momentum by the Elastic Trio, his plugged-in unit with Blade and keyboardist Sam Yahel.
Some in the full house may have been aware of certain parallels in the life histories of Redman and the new president. Both are biracial, and both had black fathers who were absent during their formative years, leaving them to be raised by their white mothers. Both can claim Harvard '91 on their resumes: Obama as a distinguished Doctor of Laws who headed the Harvard Law Review; Redman as a summa cum laude pre-med student who, towards the end of his time at Harvard, applied and was accepted to Yale Law School.
There, the paths diverge. Obama went into community service and politics. Redman, who spent much of his Boston down time taking the T across the Charles River to interact with such talented Berklee and New England School of Music students as Grenadier, Seamus Blake, Jorge Rossy, Mark Turner, Antonio Hart, and Roy Hargrove, deferred legal studies to explore the jazz life in New York City. Settling in Brooklyn, he played and recorded with his father, tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman; submitted a tape to the 1991 Thelonious Monk tenor saxophone competition; won first place over Chris Potter and Eric Alexander; received a lucrative recording contract; made an inaugural world tour with sidemen Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins; and formed a band with peer groupers Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride, and Blade. He never looked back.
Highly visible from the start, Redman never enjoyed the luxury of anonymity that allows developing young musicians to beta-test ideas out of public view, to smooth-out the rough patches in the arduous course of developing an instrumental and group sound. But although Redman is a pragmatist (he knew first-hand from his father's material struggles how difficult the jazz life is), he was never a play-it-safe musician. This is evident on his albums of the '90s, which, if not formally venturesome, display his incremental progress towards new arenas of expression. All showcase Redman's impeccable musicianship—the unerring time, centered tone, and meticulous articulation—which he deploys in the course of "telling a story." He's always had an enviable knack for creating elegant melodies within complex structures, and infusing them with emotional content.
"Sound is your voice," he told me in a 1994 interview on WKCR. "It doesn't matter what you're saying if you don't have a voice to say it with. The sound is your soul, your spirit, the essence of your emotion, and to me, emotion is the key to jazz—and to all music."
Not to start off on a negative note, but you're about to turn 40.
I am about to turn 40, and yes, there are many ways of looking at that, some negative, but many not so negative. I can't say I'm looking forward to it. But I'm very accepting of it. I hate to say I'm at the happiest point in my life, because we're all still trying to calibrate happiness and figure out exactly what that means. But I think I'm at a place where I'm the most settled, most at-peace with the various aspects of my life. I feel like I'm in a good place musically. I have a beautiful son. I'm in a wonderful relationship. So yeah, I'm probably at the happiest point in my life.
You've been quoted as saying that Compass reflected a process of contemplation and personal struggle.
Yes … which contradicts what I just said. I don't know the best way to describe this. The conditions of my life—where I live, my relationships, my music, my career, my friends, my family—over the past few years have been fantastic. Which made it almost paradoxical is that a couple of years ago I started to go through some particularly troubling stuff in a very interior way. I won't go into too much detail, but suffice to say that there was an inner struggle, a sense of disorientation that didn't appear to have anything to do with what was going on in my life.
For one thing, your father died two years ago.
Yes, my father died, and my son was born in the same year. My son was born in February and my father died in September of 2006. Those were obviously two huge life events. It was both a very joyful, inspiring year, and a very sad and melancholy year. I'm sure those stayed with me. It's not as if I felt directly, a year later, that I was dealing with those things in a conscious way. But certainly, I think the intensity of that year emotionally, psychically, spiritually ... There were repercussions, and perhaps my struggles over the next couple of years came out of that.
Without being reductive about it, is there any connection between this struggle and your choice to navigate the trio format and the subsequent extensions of the trio format, as documented on Compass?
Saxophone trio is a more abstract musical context—also more raw and naked, more exposed, one could say more vulnerable. But I don't feel that sort of direct relationship factored-in when I started [playing with a] trio. However, at the time I was writing the music for this new record I was definitely approaching the height of the more personal issues I referred to. Some of that struggle, that anxiety, that contemplation was reflected in the music that I was writing. Then the time we recorded the album was in certain ways the peak—or the nadir—of that interior struggle. So with the new album, yes, there was that relationship.
Take me through the project. Was the configuration of Compass something you had envisioned at the time you made Back East, or did it stem from its repercussions?
I'd been doing some trio playing up 'til 2006, when I recorded Back East. The record was released in the spring of 2007, which is when I started touring heavily in trio format. I wrote the music for Compass at the beginning of that touring, all in a period of three or four days. Usually I am not a prolific composer. I tend to take awhile with compositions, to write them over a period of time, as opposed to a writing body of material in a very short span. So this burst of compositional productivity was unusual. I think that was May 2007.
Back East is a combination of original music, but also arrangements of other people's songs, and once I was really digging into it, playing trio a lot, I got inspired to write a lot of original music for that format. So basically the music on Compass was all original songs written for trio. When I thought about recording the music, my concept was just that—that I would do a trio record, with bass and drums, and just record this original music.
Back East had multiple trios, and you were performing and touring with multiple trios as well.
Exactly. So I decided for the next record that I would do multiple trios again, but my concept was a slight variation on the theme of Back East. On Back East there were three rhythm section tandems, and I recorded a few songs with each of them—with Reuben Rogers and Eric Harland, with Larry Grenadier and Ali Jackson, and with Christian McBride and Brian Blade. For the new record, I wanted to play with Larry and Reuben and with Greg and Brian; my concept was to do individual trio combinations, but do something with each combination—Reuben and Greg, Reuben and Brian, Larry and Greg, Larry and Brian. But something else happened, which became this idea of doing stuff with multiple basses and multiple drummers, and also with everybody together in double trio format.
Having decided upon that, it sounds like you did not go into the studio with a set-in-stone idea of how the arrangements would go. It's very fluid and sounds spontaneously arranged and internally orchestrated by everyone.
There was little arrangement ahead of time for the double trio stuff. There were some general instructions, or, I should say, suggestions that I made. But essentially, the arrangements happened organically and naturally and spontaneously as we were playing the music. In most cases, each musician figured out his role at any one particular time. The two drummers, Brian and Greg, figured out, without even talking about it, how they would interact and complement each other, and the same with Larry and Ruben. So it was very open-ended.
As a jazz musician, by definition you embrace the quality of an experience of surprise and spontaneity and the unfamiliar. That's what improvisation is all about. But I do have to say that with this album, maybe I embraced some of those things on an even deeper level, because I didn't really have an agenda or a planner or even a vision of what this double trio stuff would sound like. We all approached it with this idea of, 'Hey, let's give it a try and see what happens.' That was new for me in the studio. I tend to go into recording sessions with a little more of a plan. The band I'm playing with is the band I've been working with, so we've been playing the music in a live setting, and developed a certain sense of how to play the different songs, what the different songs can sound like, and maybe different directions in which we can take them. There's more of a musical history there to begin with, so when we do a take in the studio, we can sense how that take relates to how we might have played it in another context. In those situations, I can sense exactly what's going to happen (obviously, there's so much improvisation), but more the shape, the general statement or meaning I'm trying to extract from this song or this performance.
So on Compass the roadmap is much more nebulous.
Much more nebulous, yes. Roadmap? I don't think I generally have that much of a roadmap on anything. But yes, the orientation is almost to the point of being lost ... but that carries a kind of negative connotation which I don't necessarily want to express. But the sense of kind of being out there, as you say … yes, without a roadmap, without an anchor. We had to navigate ourselves in the moment without a clear and detailed map.
It seems you've always been very concerned with structure and creating form. We haven't actually done a formal interview since 1995, but in interviews we did on WKCR that year and in 1994 and 1993, you talked a lot about structure.
Well, I think structure is important. I don't know if I'm a structuralist—I don't know what that means in jazz. But structure is a very important part of the meaning in music. The shape of a song or of an improvisation certainly has a lot to do with the story you're telling. Although in the past I've done a fair amount of free playing, more often than not, I'd have a pretty solid structure for each song, whether that's a groove, or a metric system or a set of changes. That's definitely there with these songs, but there's more of a sense of creating the structure in the moment, as opposed to having an existing structure and then creating within it. There aren't that many songs on the record that are completely free. In fact, there's only one, the first, which isn't really even a song, but a kind of vignette. On lots of songs there's a structure, but an important part of it is a free area where we create our own structure. For example, 'Insomnomaniac' is very complex and detailed, with strange-shifting odd meters, but then in parts of that song we break down and the structure disappears. So yes, I think there's more of that balance and exploration.
All the musicians who play on this record have played with you for at least a decade. Maybe more. Fifteen-twenty years.
Everybody knows each other's vocabulary, and you've come up through the wars together.
Very much so.
You made a comment in one of those interviews from 13-14 years ago that you played a wide stylistic range, but predicted that as you and your generational cohort got older, the style-hopping would stop, all the various devices and approaches would become incorporated in people's own musical vision. That seems very apparent on Compass and also Back East.
Yes. I think that's a natural development. In a certain sense, it goes without saying in a music like jazz, that as you get older and have more experience you better digest and process the information that you've been exposed to. You become more mature, everything becomes more integrated, and you have more of a voice and more to say.
One unique thing about my generation is that we came up in a time in which there existed this dialogue, this faux controversy, this idea of a conflict between tradition and innovation. When I got to New York in 1991, that was a major topic of discussion in the jazz press. There was a sense that a choice had to be made, that either you are embracing the lineage and the legacy and the history of acoustic jazz, or you're doing something radical and revolutionary and new. Some musicians fell into that, accepted that dichotomy and that view, and chose a side. Others resisted it and chose not to choose. They tried to work within a variety of languages, hoped that over time those would get synthesized, and didn't consciously try to wear the mantle of innovation, but certainly also not to be backward-looking. As you might suspect, I consider myself one of those musicians, and a lot of the musicians whom I play with, my close collaborators and colleagues, definitely have that same view.
Hopefully, over time, our music has become more mature. I don't think it's even a topic of discussion now. No young musician who is coming up today is talking about 'The Tradition' with a 'T' as something to which you have to bow down and pay homage. At the same time, nobody is talking about how the only value in jazz is newness. I think this idea of naturally working with a variety of languages, immersing yourself in a variety of vocabularies, and hopefully expressing yourself in a natural, organic way, is the attitude of most musicians today.
The preparations for Back East occurred towards the end of your tenure with the SFJAZZ Collective, and the trio tours that gestated your music, it seems to me, followed or came around the end of your last tour with them.
My last tour with them was spring of 2007, and yes, Back East was released, so I basically went straight from touring with SFJAZZ to touring with trio. Also, I had been doing trio gigs on and off since 2004, so in a certain sense, they evolved in parallel.
It seems to me that an experience like SFJAZZ Collective must have been both an immersive experience and also a growth experience—immersing yourself in those canons.
I'm wondering if you can discern any impact from those four years on what you're doing now, as you approach 40.
It was definitely a formative period in my musical life, and I learned so much and grew so much during that time. I wouldn't say it was so much a matter of immersing myself in the canons, if by that you mean the canons of the great ...
To a great extent, I felt as though I had earlier immersed myself in their music, in their languages. One irony about the Collective is that when we were working up our arrangements and our interpretations of the music of these masters, in a strange way, was a time when I was listening to their music the least. Part of that may have been by design. Part of our goal was to try to play this classic repertoire in a way that did it justice and captured some of the music's central spirit, but we also tried very much to offer our own take on the music, our own interpretations.
The band's principal orientation or attitude was original music, whether our own compositions or our original interpretations of other people's music. So the real formative aspect for me of that band was immersing myself in this world, being in a composer's workshop, as it were, and playing other people's music—incredibly challenging, intricate, beautiful music. I think that was where the growth happened for me more than anything. Just getting a chance, for example, to get inside a Miguel Zenon composition for four years straight. To me, he's one of the most gifted composers in jazz. I learned so much, and I carried many of those things away from me.
At a certain point, I hungered for the acoustic trio, because SFJAZZ Collective was a large ensemble, pretty much the largest ensemble I'd ever worked with on a regular basis. So as much as I loved being part of a four-horn front line, and all the harmonic and textural possibilities that this offered, there was something very attractive to me about playing trio, because it's very different—open, stark, naked, a lot of freedom.
It seems your other major preoccupation in the preceding years was the Elastic Trio, with Sam Yahel and either Brian Blade or Jeff Ballard.
We played a lot with Jeff actually.
That group really grew in scope over the years, and was very creative ... I shouldn't say 'was.'
Well, we're taking a sabbatical, for sure.
Can you speak to what you intended with that group, how it grew, and what qualities of that group infuse the current acoustic direction?
I'm glad you asked that. On the surface, there's a huge divide between the Elastic Band the acoustic trio. The Elastic Band is a lot of electronics, and we played mostly groove-oriented music—we didn't play any music that was swing-based. Even though there're only three of us, a lot of musical layers were happening at one time. There's a ton of harmony. With the acoustic trio, it's all acoustic, there are only three voices, and there aren't layers of harmony. We're playing a lot of swing-based music. So formally, they are very different.
But I really feel that my improvisational attitude, my orientation, my approach to playing with Elastic Band and with the trio are fundamentally the same. With Elastic Band, our goal was to take this open-ended, fluid, elastic sensibility that is part and parcel with the acoustic jazz language—that sense of collective give-and-take within the music—and explore that in an electric, groove-based context. To the extent we had a philosophy, that was it. I think it took us some time to make that work, to find that balance. I felt when we stopped playing together, it was at a high point in the sense that we had figured out a lot of things, and were feeling very comfortable in that format.
You mentioned texture before, and it did occur to me that one point of common ground between the Elastic Trio and this trio is that both are concerned with timbre to an extent that I don't think was the case in the '90s.
I agree with that. Maybe that's a natural evolution. When you think about the different aspects of music, the first things that come to mind are rhythm, melody, and harmony—and structure, in terms of meter and form. As a jazz musician, those are the aspects that I explored first. As I got more comfortable with those elements and got maybe more sensitive and subtle in my approach, then I could take on texture more. With this trio, and especially with the Double Trio, I really started to explore the spatial element of music. What I mean by that, in terms of a jazz band, I had never thought about how the music exists in space. I'd think about harmony and rhythm and texture and melody and timbre and tone color in terms of different voices occupying different places in the spatial spectrum. But with the double trio, for the first time, I started to think like that, because so much of the band's identity was based on how we related in space, setting up with the saxophone in the middle, the two basses on either side, the two drummers on the far left and right. That symmetrical formation informed the music. To the extent that I thought about arranging different tunes, a lot of it had to do with that sense of space, and passing call-and-response across the space.
One thing I've found admirable about your career is that you've maintained a creative path and growth whilst sustaining a successful performing career—doing it square-on in the spotlight. In retrospect, can you speak to how you kept your balance during those years?
I think it's very simple. I never gave any real credence to that world. I mean, I was very fortunate to have that attention and to have those opportunities, and I also recognized the importance of taking advantage of those opportunities. I shouldn't say that I didn't give any credence to it. I'm one of those people who, when I was young, loved reading liner notes. I loved reading analysis of music, criticism of music. When I first got to New York, I would often read reviews in the New York Times of jazz shows I went to see. I actually place a tremendous amount of value on jazz writing and jazz criticism of the serious sort. But what I mean is that, what people said, or wrote, or the interest that they took in me career-wise or publicity-wise, never informed or had any bearing on how I viewed myself or my own music. I never had the sense that the attention I was getting was in any way related to the quality of the music I was playing. Not to say that I didn't think my music had quality. But I recognized from the beginning the sheer luck and good fortune that went into this.
I've always been intensely self-critical, sometimes to a fault, sometimes in an almost paralyzing way. No matter what sort of attention I might or might not be getting, that never changed. Always my driving force was feeling like I sucked—not wanting to suck. For me, the self-criticism always happened before or after the fact, but never during. The great inspiration and joy and presence that comes with playing is the only reason I was able to survive artistically as a jazz musician and to keep playing. For me, the moment of making music is always positive and inspiring. Playing feels great. Even if I'm not playing well, it still feels great. But it's the aftermath, the taking stock of it, the self-analysis that happens after that's the hard part.
Do you listen to your older records?
I think I need about a decade's distance.
What do you think of your '90s records, then?
I will say that typically, the more recently I've [recorded] it, the harder it is to listen-to and the more frustrated and critical and disappointed I am with it. At a certain point, I get enough distance that I can maybe appreciate it a bit more. Sometimes now, I don't cringe if I hear something from Mood Swing or Wish or Joshua Redman (the first record). I recognize my voice. It sounds like me but it sounds like a very different me. I certainly made many choices that I would not make now. Generally, I listen back and just hear weaknesses that hopefully I've dealt with more, so that now I have fewer weaknesses in those departments. Sometimes I'm shocked and hear certain strengths, like, 'Oh, man, I used to be able to do that?' or 'Man, why don't I have that any more?' That's when it's instructive and helpful to hear something I've done in the past, because I might rediscover something that I got away from.
Who were your direct mentors in those early years? People who could talk to you when you had those periods of self-doubt.
Nobody! I had lots of mentors, but no one in the sense of someone who could talk me up from the self-criticism. That was something that I had to do for myself. But many mentors. My father was the first one, for sure. Before I got to New York, I played with him at the Village Vanguard, and when I got to New York I played with him regularly for two years, and I learned more from him in those two years about saxophone playing and about improvisation and about tone and feeling and the blues and freedom than I've ever learned from anyone. I had an opportunity to play a fair amount with Charlie Haden, who was a big one. Pat Metheny was a really big one. I learned a lot from him about music and also about being a professional musician. I had a chance to do a long tour with Jack DeJohnette and with Paul Motian. I'd say my peers were huge mentors for me. I played a lot with Jorge Rossy, with Mark Turner, with Kevin Hays, with Brian Blade, with Brad Mehldau, later with Greg Hutchinson. Christian McBride was a huge mentor and really a teacher to me in so many ways.
You're going to be 40. You're a father. Your father has died. At this point, you're a signpost along the jazz history timeline. This is probably for someone else to discern, and not you. But at a certain point, you were going to be a lawyer. You were going to be a doctor. You weren't going to be a musician. Do you have any reflections on your path?
I don't really have any thoughts or reflections upon my place or role in jazz history, or even my place or role in jazz-present. For me, thinking in those terms takes me out of a creative place. That's the worst thing I can do for my music. Anyone's place in jazz history ultimately comes down to the music that they create, I think, and the worst thing I can do for my place in jazz history is to think about my place in jazz history. So I certainly leave that to others, as you noted.
But in terms of the choices I've made, and what I've done and haven't done, being a musician as opposed to a doctor or lawyer: One of the big aspects of turning 40, where I am right now, is that I think for the first time I can finally say I'm a musician. I'm a jazz musician. That's what I am. I am not someone who chose to check out jazz, 'I'm playing jazz, I love playing jazz, but there's these other things I could have done and still might want to do.' This is what I do. This is what I love to do. This is hopefully what I'll be doing for the rest of my life.
Ted Panken interviewed Joshua Redman on January 27, 2009