Joshua Redman pushes convention at Berklee

A review of Joshua Redman at the Berklee Performance Center on January 22, 2009

, Contributing Writer

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Joshua Redman’s new combo when I turned up at the Berklee Performance Center last Thursday. Comprised of two drummers, Brian Blade and Gregory Hutchinson, and two bassists, Reuben Rogers and Larry Grenadier, and no other melody or harmony instruments, I could imagine a disaster in the making, with collisions in the rhythm section and a sax player left out front with no support. Alternatively, I could imagine an ego showcase, with the rhythm section boxed up and over-written, leaving a show consisting of sax solos and nothing much else. But with players of this caliber, I also had hope that I might be surprised, and that turned out to be what happened.

The makeup of this ensemble invites comparison between the players, two bassists and two drummers with strong individual voices, but if it’s going to work, the whole thing has to be about listening rather than self-display. Redman’s demeanor was exemplary of this. As a leader, he spent as much time on the side of the stage listening to his collaborators as he did on stage blowing with them, and when he was on the stage he was incorporating the ideas they threw at him rather than simply blowing. This behavior was reflected in the sidemen, who left enough room for the other players to work, and played to each other and with each other, and never against each other. & & &

The show opened with a Redman composition called "Identity Thief", which nicely established this theme. "Identity Thief" is based on a fairly intricate saxophone line, mirrored by the bass and answered by the drums, followed by a drum break and a two bass "solo"& before the saxophone sets in to work. By having the two rhythm pairings of Grenadier and Blade (stage right) and Hutchinson and Rogers (stage left) take turns in the head, and then letting the drummers and the bassists immediately engage with each other, Redman established from the opening moments of the show that this was going to be a night of collaboration and engagement, rather than a showdown and a showoff. And when he returned to center stage, the whole machine worked remarkably well in supporting his soloing. The excellence of the musicians he’s working with is crucial to the success of his project, of course: all four of his accompanists play at a level of technique which allows them to explore the full possibilities of their instruments, and they have the ears and the imagination to put that technique to use in service of the music rather than simply as a means of showing off their chops for their own sake. Grenadier and Rogers traded licks as a means of sharing and expanding on each others’ ideas, and incidentally showed off their complete command of the upright bass.

After the ensemble number, Redman played a series of four pieces, one with each combination of drummer and bassist. Grenadier and Hutchinson supported him on "Hutchhiker’s Guide", a nicely written piece with a more singable head than "Identity Thief". His solo was marked by an inventive approach to phrasing, his lines stretching a little past the boundaries of the four-bar phrasing inherited from generations of players. Jazz soloists sometimes give the impression that they’re just blowing through the changes, following the tune without a clear idea of a destination. Not so Redman: it was clear that he thinks in long lines, and his ideas are big ones, not simply a string of little ones stuck together. Grenadier’s bass solo on this tune was of a similar character. Based on a fragment of melody that repeated and shifted and transformed itself, it could have been inspired by J. S. Bach or by Steve Reich. This was driven by some subtle and tasty playing on the rims from Hutchinson.

Rogers came in for Grenadier on the bass on the next tune, "Insomnomaniac", which was introduced by the saxophone alone. Redman’s introduction was the closest thing to showing off that we saw all night, starting with a round, moody feel reminiscent of Dexter Gordon playing a ballad and working up to something more like Ornette Coleman, complete with multiphonics. Again, Redman’s big conception of the tune was very much on display. While this was clearly improvised, it was not simply a string of melodic fragments, but a conceptual whole that built to a peak before the rhythm section kicked in – literally, in this case: Redman’s left foot was the trigger that set them off. "Insomnomaniac" (I don’t know whether the music is intended to represent a state of mind, or whether Redman just liked the title) is a tricky piece, shifting between fast and slow movements without obvious cues, but Rogers and Hutchinson handled it with apparent ease. Hutchinson’s drum solo on this number was outstanding – I haven’t heard such melodic drumming since I last heard Tootie Heath, and that was another sort of melodic entirely.

"Ghost", the next number, put Rogers’ bass in the foreground. It opened with a solo which, in contrast to Grenadier’s earlier, was more like a horn line than an exercise in counterpoint. The difference was one of horizontal and vertical harmony. Where Grenadier’s solo stacked the notes on top of each other and stated the development explicitly, Rogers’ implied the changes through the melody. Both were perfectly good ways to do the work, and both were delightful to hear. Presently, Blade joined in, playing textures with padded mallets, brushes, and his hands – this is drummer who plays for sounds, and even when Rogers settled into an ostinato figure and a groove coalesced, Blade continued to pay deep attention to the colors he produced. Redman played this one on the soprano sax, moving into the tune with gentle exploratory lines in the instrument’s lower register before moving into the higher reaches and playing more intricate lines as the tempo picked up. The saxophone never dominated the rhythm section, though, and at one point Redman took a leisurely stroll around the stage, still playing though off-mike, as if to let the rhythm section stand out front for a while (or as if to personify the ghost of the title, faintly heard but not seen).& &

Little Ditty, another Redman original (as were all of the tunes played to this point), featured a fairly technical intro on the soprano before Grenadier entered for the tune’s more melodic head. This one felt more arranged than the others, with Grenadier playing what sounded like a composed line which supported the melody perfectly, before the trio moved into a vibe that was sonically reminiscent of the free jazz period of the 1950s, although the tune was always present. As Grenadier played another fine solo on the bass, Hutchinson and Rogers returned to the stage and the two bassists played a wonderfully conversational duet before the rest of the band came in for some full-throttle blowing from the ensemble. The final number for the regular set was Gil Evans’ "Barracuda", nicely arranged with Evans-ish collaboration in the basses, Grenadier playing high and Rogers putting the floor under him. For an encore, the group played Redman’s setting of a Beethoven sonata, which sounded more like a ballad, something on the order of Coltrane’s "Alabama", than like Beethoven.
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So, what are we to make of this "double trio?" Redman has put together a fine group of musicians here. A simple account of the playing cannot convey the sense of cooperation and sheer joy that came off that stage. Blade and Hutchinson showed a real affinity for each other, finishing each other’s lines and obviously having a fine time. After the show, Blade talked about how much he enjoyed playing with Hutchinson: "It’s nice to be able to play with someone when you don’t have to talk about it. It’s just, let’s play some music, you know?" Rogers and Grenadier spent more time making room for each other, giving the other room to play and then stepping in to take a turn, but you could hear that each was listening to the other and responding. With all of this cooperation going on behind him, Redman had a clear field to blow, and he made the most of it, showing a strong understanding of the history and the possibilities of his instrument. Long used to working in the trio setting, he is very good at exploiting the harmonic possibilities of this configuration as well as the more visceral possibilities of a rhythm-oriented combo, as he did in some of the funkier riffing sections of "Insomnomaniac". I doubt if this will supplant the standard trio plus horns arrangement, and probably it won’t be Redman’s standard touring band for very long, but it’s nice to know that some of these ideas get tried sometimes, and that sometimes they work this well.

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