Sometimes it’s really hard to focus on tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman’s music. With all the glitz and glamour surrounding him—Donna Karan and Prada fashion endorsements, his recent appointment as artistic director for the San Francisco Jazz Organization—it’s easy to assume that his immense popularity owes more to social climbing than artistic merit. Since blitzing into the jazz mainstream in 1991, Redman has yet to release an album that sharply distinguishes him from the rest of his contemporaries—and his latest, Beyond, doesn’t make a significant sonic departure from his previous works. Still, the recording’s compositional zeal suggests that Redman is on his way to living up to all the hype.
Whether or not all the press clips lavished on Redman are deserved, it’s hard to dispute his technical facilities. At the 1991 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, he impressed the jazz community with a whiskey-sour tone that fell somewhere between John Coltrane’s boldness and Stan Getz’s ether (he also took home the first-place prize). That smoldering sound, combined with a near-flawless dexterity and melodic sense, makes Redman’s playing easy on the ears of newcomers, and still satisfying to the palates of aficionados.
The sparkling “Courage (Asymmetric Aria),” which opens Beyond, starts with a melody so soothing it could sell Calgon. But as soon as Redman departs from the billowy melody and picks up momentum, he dives into a full-throttle improvisation enlivened by rapid melodic turnarounds and subtle multiphonic shrieks and wails. Thanks to pianist Aaron Goldberg’s feathery accompaniment, and drummer Gregory Hutchinson’s shimmering cymbal ride, “Courage” is imbued with a valiant, optimistic ethos befitting the album’s title.
While Redman’s prowess as an instrumentalist has been long established, his compositional skills have always seemed to lag. He’s a melodious player capable of filling the most vapid material with heartfelt emotion. Like the rest of his post-Motown bop affiliates, he shares an affinity for pop between the ’70s and now. His 1998 album, Timeless Tales (For Changing Times), featured Redman interpreting a cross-generational collection of tunes ranging from old chestnuts such as Gershwin’s “Summertime” to fresher vehicles written by Stevie Wonder, the Beatles, and Prince. The new album shows Redman’s burgeoning persuasiveness on alto and soprano saxophones, and features all original compositions, each glimmering with a brilliant blend of pop’s melodic accessibility and jazz’s improvisational abandonment. Call it populist bop.
This gripping synthesis of pop-inspired melodic hooks and explorational improvisation comes together in the title of Redman’s “Last Rites of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Despite its avant-gardish beginning—Redman droning a Middle Eastern-inflected tone which could be mistaken for the work of his more adventurous father, Dewey Redman—”Last Rites of Rock ‘N’ Roll” is a fairly straight-ahead bop tune. After burping out a danceable melody that sounds as if it was lifted out of a “soul jazz” songbook, Redman unfurls a dazzling improvisation that finds him jubilantly riding the ‘Trane. The rhythmic thrust propelled by Hutchinson and bassist Reuben Rogers also helps drive Goldberg’s gentle playing into a bluesy, more rambunctious manner.
Wistful melodies that ride atop infectious rhythmic motifs are the main—and ideal—mode for Redman’s vaporous tone. When he makes his composition’s thematic statements, he often soars high above the rest of the ensemble. Afterward, his improvisations seem to dovetail through the air with streams of melodic ideas that flow effortlessly. All the compositions on Beyond optimize the nature of Redman’s playing. The airborne beginning of “Courage” and his pensive duet with tenor saxophonist Mark Turner at the beginning of “Leap of Faith” evoke a sense of wonder.
Unfortunately, a real sense of danger never emerges—despite the ecstasy of Redman and Turner’s twining tenors as they reach for the stratosphere, or the torchy, anthemic wails that close the sentimental “Twilight…and Beyond.” The suspense that Redman creates is similar to that of R&B sensualists like Al Green and Marvin Gaye. Redman knows how to croon a melody through the saxophone. Sometimes he’ll extend a phrase slightly over the bar, such as on the lulling ballad “Neverend,” which will bring you to the edge of your seat in anticipation. Other times, he’ll simply pace his solos in a conversational delivery, punctuated with rhapsodic exclamation points, question marks, and ellipses, as on the contemplative “Belonging (Lopsided Lullaby).”
Despite the unity of the material, Beyond encompasses a wide range of influences. Elements of great songwriters, from Cole Porter to Wonder, waft through much of the material. Hutchinson’s insistent beat and Rogers’ swaggering bass lines on “Stoic Revolutions” underpin Redman and Goldberg’s fiery solos with a vintage “Young Sounds of America”-era Motown groove. And if it weren’t for its acoustic setting, the picturesque “Twilight…and Beyond”—which evolves from a plaintive beginning to an exhilarating singsongy ending—could have been a pre-Jaco Pastorius Weather Report standard. On the dreamy “Suspended Emanations,” both the compositional design and Redman’s piercing soprano belie the past innovations of Wayne Shorter. Throughout Beyond, seemingly disparate influences—ranging from Holland-Dozier-Holland and Radiohead to Keith Jarrett to Ramsey Lewis—intermingle with crisp lucidity.
So is Beyond beyond category? Hardly. Records like this have been made by a host of jazz luminaries. Will this album reach newer audiences? Not on its own. But with Redman’s publicity machine choreographing nearly every move the jazz poster boy makes, and a marketing engine ready to get this album played everywhere from Tower Records to Pottery Barn, it’s certainly Grammy-bound. Is that a bad thing? Not exactly, because despite Beyond’s unabashed pop sensibilities, it has enough artistic integrity to show that quality stuff can sometimes come in shiny, marketable packages. CP