Joshua Redman's story is well-known—the son of saxophone legend Dewey Redman graduated summa cum laude from Harvard. He was headed to law school when he entered the 1991 Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Saxophone Competition, taking first place just ahead of Eric Alexander, Chris Potter, and Tim Warfield. The prize and the hype that followed got Redman signed to Warner Brothers, first with a band of peers (Joshua Redman 1993) and then with an all-star band (with Pat Metheny, Billy Higgins, and Charlie Haden on Wish, also 1993). But as dazzling as this burst toward jazz stardom was (and back then, there was still something like "jazz stardom" available to young creative musicians), the story of Redman's first working band is also a skyrocket.
Redman was born in 1968, and he started touring and recording with pianist Brad Mehldau (1970), bassist Christian McBride (1972), and drummer Brian Blade (1970). At that time, none of these future jazz titans were leading groups yet, though McBride was becoming well-known as a young phenom holding his own with jazz veterans. Their debut recording, Moodswing, was the only one they made as a complete unit, though crisscrossing collaborations have continued. And they only played together for about 18 months, a far cry from the tenures of bands like the Bad Plus, Medeski Martin and Wood, or even Wayne Shorter's last quartet.
But in retrospect, there is something critical about the band. Not only did they each go on to develop a strong individual voice, but they represent a thread that connects the music's past to its vanguard present. They aren't exactly the "old guard" at 50 years old, but their music is tied more obviously to the post-bop tradition of theme/solos/theme and personal virtuosity than the new jazz of folks 15-25 younger, whose music more plainly reflects academic/classical new music influence and a shift to compositional complexity. My observant colleague Giovanni Russenello wrote incisively about this in The New York Times, where he lamented that "the tradition is threatened these days, largely from within: It has come to feel perilously isolated from the world as lived; more and more, what's made under the banner of straight-ahead jazz sounds like the world as learned." I'm not as worried as Giovanni about this trend, but I agree with him that Redman, Mehldau, McBride, and Blade serve as models for younger players who are keenly interested in being both fresh thinkers about creative music and clarion instrumental voices in the tradition of Coleman Hawkins, Lee Morgan, and Bud Powell.
The quartet reunited last year to record RoundAgain, which is both joyously individual and full of great compositions, several of which are complex enough to sound "new". As middle-aged artists are supposed to, these masters deliver both a class in the verities of the past and the cry that they are hardly done.
Redman is not the leader of this band, with each musician contributing compositions. (Moodswing featured tunes only by the saxophonist.) His three, however, are the ones that grip your ears most directly. "Silly Little Love Song" is built on a happy backbeat from Blade and a set of gospel-tinged chords from Mehldau. The saxophone melody is a collection of hip blues phrases built into a joyous structure. McBride solos like he was a great soul-blues guitarist, and then Mehldau deconstructs it by opening up the harmonies and finding their less obvious threads. The composer doesn't solo until the end, simply revving up the tag with wails and cries, letting Blade build the heat as he burns. Also hot is Redman's "Right Back Round Again", which is the only track here that is a conventionally swinging uptempo tune, even though it is leavened with a rhythmic figure that complicates the urgent attack of the ensemble.
McBride wrote the other more traditional tune. "Floppy Diss" has a punching throwback sound that suggests the jagged joy of Thelonious Monk in his stride-ish mode. Redman plays the theme unison with Mehldau and then solos on soprano saxophone, the rhythm section using both a two-beat lope and quarter-note swing. Each soloist is strong: Redman mugging for the camera joyfully, as if Sidney Bechet were in the family somewhere, Mehldau is sly, and McBride is just a bit Sly and the Family Stone.
The material is more interesting, however, as the quartet leans away from the older jazz tradition. Blade's "Your Part to Play" is a meditative piece that uses mournful two-note cadences to set up a pure exploration of atmosphere. The harmonies shift slowly and slightly, which allows Redman and Mehldau to improvise collectively with extraordinary freedom, making the band sound less bound to any kind of bebop instincts. In a different way, Mehldau's "Father" uses a swaying waltz time to take advantage, again, of Redman's dry soprano sound. It achieves a more modern sound partly because Blade never stops jabbing and conversing with the band and partly because the structure of the composition is more daring, with Redman's solo opening up into considerable freedom, followed by a solo piano reset that refigures the written melody and gives Redman a second feel from which to improvise.
Most bold, perhaps, are "Moe Honk" by Mehldau and "Undertow" by Redman. The former begins with a tricky polyrhythm around which Blade dances delightfully as the band delivers a fleet theme that alternates with a hip, mechanical toggling figure. It sounds a good bit like the new jazz you might hear on a younger player's recording. But halfway through the saxophone solo, Blade and McBride resolve the accompanying rhythm into a furiously swinging four-four. The old guys play it like Bird or Trane were listening in the control room, eager to hear some bop, some ripping chordal playing, and they deliver. Mehldau is fleet like Bud and plays some hip distortions like Monk. Whoooo-eee.
"Undertow" is more 2020, with precise composed figures overlapping at first and then playing together in octaves over a 6/8 rhythm. The direction of melody is tonal, but it veers off in some places, and there are no chords in the head arrangement, resulting in improvisations that leave the band more open to free harmonic movement in the solos section. Redman and Mehldau seem to lead and follow in the moment, with the "changes" hitting our ears more unexpectedly.
After a few listens to RoundAgain, the temptation to listen back a quarter-century may overcome you. How far have Blade, McBride, Mehldau, and Redman come since 1994? Moodswing holds up as a wonderful set of performances, and it contains some surprises. "Dialogue" opens up to free playing in the middle, with the band going from an almost-one-chord written meditation to collective improvisation. "Faith" is a spirit-lifting melody that you will wish you had put on repeat for the last few years of bad news. "Sweet Sorrow" shows off a tenor saxophone tone and warmth that reminds you why ballad playing and blues playing are not far apart in this music.
It's no knock on RoundAgain to observe that these musicians sounded fantastic—and not spectacularly different—in 1994. The differences today are largely in balance and consistency. Blade's drumming is more obviously a critical part of the sculpture of each performance on the new set. McBride's solos are every bit as bold and interesting as those of Redman. And Mehldau's playing and composing are now utterly distinct and self-possessed. On Moodswing, he occasionally sounded like his influences, whereas RoundAgain takes on the joys and highlights of one of his recent recordings. And while the highlights from 1994 were high indeed, Moodswing has stretches that come off as filler today, such as the bossa "Alone in the Morning" or the Pink Panther-ish "Chill".