The cerebral, charismatic saxophonist Joshua Redman headlines a trio of musicians playing works by three legendary jazz composers at the Modlin Center on Wednesday, Feb. 15. Redman has been one of the leading players of his generation since winning the Thelonious Monk Saxophone Competition in 1991. He has an impressive origin story.
The son of legendary saxophonist Dewey Redman, who played in Keith Jarrett’s “American Quartet” and a host of other bands, Joshua was taking a year off, deferring entry into Yale Law School after graduating summa cum laude from Harvard. His first, self-titled album won a nomination for a Grammy award, and he started his career playing with the era’s leading jazz musicians, including Jack DeJohnette, Charlie Haden, Elvin Jones, Joe Lovano, Pat Metheny, and Paul Motian. He also formed a permanent band with a cadre of young lions who have become the exemplars of excellence in the new millennium, including Christian McBride, Brad Mehldau, and Brian Blade. The same youthful quartet that recorded “MoodSwing” in 1993 released the magisterial “Round Again” in 2022.
Redman is a player of strength and fluidity. The new, high concept project, 3x3, is built on compositions from Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Wayne Shorter, which provides a somewhat familiar landscape to experience his artistry in a stripped-down, open-ended setting. “There are some arrangements,” Redman says. “But I really tried my best to be as minimally invasive as possible. It’s not Cole Porter or Irving Berlin, but it’s the closest thing to a standards project that I've done. They are not my compositions, and I am not trying to radically rearrange them. It is just about getting into them and discovering what they have to offer to us as improvisers.”
The saxophone trio format was pioneered by jazz legend Sonny Rollins, who’s “A Night at the Village Vanguard” and “Way Out West,” both from 1957, pioneered the form as a stand-alone format. The approach is always something of a high wire act, given that, in chord-heavy jazz, the lead instrument is limited to one note at a time.
“In jazz, people typically think more about piano trios,” Redman says. “In a saxophone trio there is no dedicated harmonic instrument. The challenge in that context is to try to communicate the essential message of these songs, which does have to do with their harmony. Two of these composers [Ellington and Monk] were pianists and one of Wayne Shorter’s great gifts as a composer was finding ways of tying his lyrical, poetic melodies to these almost floating abstract harmonies.”
Playing work where harmony is very important without a harmonic instrument presents its own temptations. “Sometimes there is the temptation of trying to fill in the missing information by filling space with a whole bunch of notes,” he says. “We try to communicate what needs to be said economically, through the use of space, phrasing, and silence.”
“There are a lot of songs I’ve written that I won’t play in a trio because they need the chords to be explicitly spelled out,” he adds. “But I have found that Ellington, Monk, and Shorter wrote great melodies where the harmony is implied, even if the notes are not played.”
Redman’s name is on the marquee, but success is a group effort.
“You do not want to go in battle without the proper army,” the saxophonist says. “It helps to have great musicians. Larry Grenadier who is one of the greatest bassists in the world. And Joe Dyson is one of the great current drummers. I’ve been following him for some time, but never played with him before; Richmond will be the first performance with this lineup.”
Having just turned 54, Redman is philosophical about his capabilities.
“I think a lot of middle age, especially later middle age, is coming to terms with yourself. I’m intensely self-critical, so I don’t really enjoy stepping out of myself to view my development and body of work,” he explains. “I can see my failures more clearly than my strengths. When you’re 25, you think you have your whole life ahead of you. It you are not happy with your playing you think ‘I suck now, but in ten years I’ll be a genius.’ I expect that I will sound different ten years from now, but there are some things, maybe, that I can’t escape. They are just part of me.”
Redman notes that it’s a cliché that as you mature as a human, you also mature as a musician. “I think my playing is more measured now, with less of a sense [that] I’m trying to prove something. I use space more, with more subtlety in detail and hopefully taste and elegance. I’d like to think my technique has improved as well. But certain things decline over time, your neurons don’t fire as fast as they did. I don’t have the same recall I did when I was younger.
But overall, even if he still sometimes cringes when listening to himself play today, he says it is maybe 50% less than when he hears one of his recordings from the ‘90s.
“The thing I love so much about music is that it gets me out of that kind of observer status,” Redman says. “It is not getting the most encores, or the loudest applause. The best performances are the ones where I feel not that I've lost myself, but that my self is no longer isolated. It’s been fused with others, and there is a sense of transcendence, of community and communion.” Perfection may be the intention, but it is not the ultimate goal. “Some of the most inspired moments come out of mistakes,” Redman continues. “The note that you didn't intend to play puts you out there, on the precipice. You know you might be about to fall, but then you claw your way back and find your footing. That moment can be the most exciting and, frankly, the most elegant and beautiful thing you do.” Richmond audiences can join Redman along that transcendent edge at the Modlin Center this Wednesday night.
Joshua Redman 3x3 will take place at Camp Concert Hall, Booker Hall of Music on Wednesday, Feb. 15. Tickets are $35 adult, $30 Senior, $10 for students and $5 for University of Richmond students.