Sax God: On Redman?s latest, the horn player makes his first real move toward becoming one of the greats.

Like his hero Sonny Rollins, Joshua Redman works best in front of a trio. The stripped-down setting is especially conducive to the tenor and soprano saxophonist’s improvisational style, which is distinguished by phrases that stretch out like sentences in a Faulkner novel. And yet Redman, who is the son of avant-garde saxophonist Dewey Redman, didn’t make his first sax-bass-drums album until he recorded 2007’s Back East. That disc, a critically acclaimed tribute to Rollins’ 1957 classic Way Out West, arrived well into a career that began in the early ’90s and has, in recent years, veered dangerously close to depthless jazz-funk. Redman still has a taste for pop, as can be heard on “Insomnomaniac,” a rock-tinged track on his new trio effort Compass. Still, Redman’s latest is hardly fusion. Rather, it’s a jazz record in the post-bop mold, one that brings to mind towering saxophonists like Rollins and John Coltrane. Echoes of both are evident in the length of Redman’s improvisational lines, as well as in his choice of muscular accompaniment. Redman isn’t the only musician who plays a solo on Compass, but the other instrumental excursions seem to be mere formalities. It’s as if Redman decided that it would be impolite to claim all of the improvisational space, and his bandmates oblige him so that he doesn’t look like a hog, which he is not. He’s just doing what any other saxophonist in his place would’ve done long ago, which is to step up and show why his instrument—and not, say, the trombone—has assumed such a totemic place in jazz history. If Redman has avoided the role of saxophone colossus out of modesty, Compass suggests that, as much as he sounds great in front of a sax trio, he was wise to do so. Almost half of the tracks on the new album find Redman fronting a double trio—a rhythm section made up of two bassists (Larry Grenadier and Reuben Rogers) and two drummers (Brian Blade and Gregory Hutchinson). Coltrane doubled up in a similar fashion on several occasions, and at least one the double-trio tracks, “Identity Thief,” flirts with a Coltranesque level of instrumental and tonal heaviness. But Redman seems much more comfortable, not to mention in control, when playing less heroic material in front of a smaller group. One such performance is “Faraway.” The sprightly trio track is well suited to Redman’s tenor sound, which is bright rather than deep. Redman bounces through the standard-worthy motif and, when he launches into a solo, improvises with just as much buoyancy. The lilt that connects “Faraway” to Compass’ other trio tracks often disappears when Redman augments the rhythm section. It just goes to show that, where Redman is concerned, too much is seldom a good thing.

More from WCP