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Beyond Category

Joshua Redman’s two shows in Mumbai were the finest in Mumbai in a long time

Rolling Stone IN Nov 10, 2010

Bobin James

Beyond category. This is an expression borrowed from Duke Ellington when he was describing a recording by Ella Fitzgerald that must have pleased him immensely.

Those in Mumbai who were fortunate enough to show up to hear the Joshua Redman Trio play in September at the NCPA and the following day at Blue Frog, would agree that these performances were indeed, “beyond category.” It was arguably some of the finest jazz heard in Mumbai in a long time. I mean that in more than one way.

Firstly, the material chosen by Redman included music from Broadway shows, a cowboy song, music from The Beatles and Coldplay, music from Snow White and The Seven Dwarves and even from Beethoven. And of course, there were some original compositions. Then again the format of the trio was frankly speaking, very unconventional. A saxophone-led trio with an acoustic bass and drums in accompaniment is extremely unusual. A piano or even a guitar would allow for harmony with the sound of the horn and would also provide some relief and perhaps some balance. At least that was the thinking before one actually heard these magnificent gentlemen in performance. One had heard Sonny Rollins in a couple of recordings playing in a pianoless trio, and there seemed to be something missing in the sound.

Joshua Redman, with Gregory Hutchinson on drums and Matt Penman playing an upright acoustic bass, were a completely dazzling jazz trio. What was remarkable about their combination was the exquisite balance in their playing throughout. One had feared that the saxophones (Redman played both Tenor and soprano) would dominate the sound. His playing was very sensitive to the sound of the drums and bass, thus resulting in a very democratic, equal opportunity combination. Again, each player had sufficient space to demonstrate his considerable dexterity.

I had the opportunity to interview tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman in the Eighties. Dewey had come to Mumbai (then Bombay) for the Jazz Yatra with pianist Cedar Walton’s group. At the interview, Dewey said to me, “Hey man! Don’t write about me, write about my son. He’s a teenager but a better saxophone player than me!” I had jokingly remarked, “Sure Dewey.  Let me write about you now. When your son becomes famous, I’ll write about him.” I never thought it would ever come to this.

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There is very little, if any influence of Dewey’s playing or indeed on his life on his son Joshua, who grew up in California with his mother. Unlike Dewey’s avant garde concepts, Joshua seems steeped in the classical traditions of Lester Young, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins and of course John Coltrane. He readily accepts their influence as also those of pianists Thelonius Monk and Keith Jarrett. Joshua Redman is the ultimate lyrical player.

His mother also emphasised to Joshua the importance of a good education. He went on to get a degree from Harvard. Fortunately for us jazz fans, Joshua Redman did not pursue an academic career but instead continued playing the saxophone. His growth as a horn player has been quite remarkable. Listening to his recordings from the early Nineties through to the early part of this decade, Redman comes through as no more than an above average saxophonist. However, his recent recordings and particularly his Mumbai concerts are a giant leap forward. His abundant skills have been beautifully tempered with maturity and experience. It is obvious that he is constantly striving to improve.

The drummer, Gregory Hutchinson played with considerable subtlety. He was Betty Carter’s drummer at one time and there was no tougher taskmaster in the business. The sound had to be just right. Hutchinson has brought forward these skills. Matt Penman, the bassist is a New Zealander, but perfectly at home in a jazz setting. His playing is emphatic but lyrical and one was reminded of the great Neils Pederson. Penman enjoyed plenty of space to solo. In this era when the ”˜bass guitar’ has dominated the jazz scene ”“ more from the convenience of a much smaller instrument, the acoustic bass with its fuller, resonating sound was very welcome and a reminder that not all innovations are necessarily improvements.

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The NCPA and Blue Frog performances were studies in contrast. While at the concert hall, the audience was there only for the jazz. The acoustics were perfect and the audience, comprising of some jazz fans but several others as well, were spellbound by the 100-minute uninterrupted set. At the Blue Frog, it was a more casual night club setting. Incredibly, nothing played at the NCPA was repeated here. It was an entirely new set.

The music played ranged from ballads such as ”˜My Foolish Heart’ and ”˜Autumn in New York,’ a country and Western ”˜I’m an Old Cowhand’ (also once played by Sonny Rollins on a recording), Thelonius Monk’s jazz standard ”˜Trinkle Trinkle,’ ”˜Mack the Knife.’ On a request to play the Beatles, Redman played a few bars of their ”˜Blackbird’ and then cleverly took it into the popular jazz version of ”˜Bye Bye Blackbird.’ Somehow, I don’t think it was planned or rehearsed to come out that way. It just happened at a moment of inspiration. The masterpiece was his playing on the soprano sax of an original piece, ”˜Zorafah,’ which he dedicated to his mother. It was played quite exquisitely. The soprano was elevated to another level. But that is par for the course. After all Joshua Redman is, as they say in the business, “a whole, another level of cat!”

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