Joshua Redman returned to the acoustic realm of modern jazz in 2007 with Back East where his playing carried a definite sense of breaking free from preconceptions, self-imposed and otherwise. The saxophonist’s new album Compass extends that sensation of abandon in no uncertain terms.
Born with the pedigree of jazz heritage as the son of Dewey Redman, Joshua had little inkling to be a professional musician until winning the Thelonious Monk competition in 1991. A series of albums featuring artists including Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau led to Redman’s long-term stint with his acoustic quintet.
It was thus no surprise to see him at the helm of the SF Jazz Collective in 2005, given that ensemble’s loyalty to the genre’s tradition. Meanwhile, Redman’s formation of the groove-driven Elastic Band in 2001 ultimately brought Joshua back to his roots.
Compass simultaneously broadens and deepens the man’s invigorating approach to improvisation. Together with bassists Larry Grenadier and Rueben Rogers, and drummers Brian Blade and Gregory Hutchinson – Redman takes the trio approach to new heights and even goes so far as to perform with the entire lineup in a double-trio setting. Here he discusses the thought processes before, during and after the new album was recorded, without destroying the mystery at the heart of his music.
I’m really enjoying the new album Compass and I have right from the start. I found it interesting you set it up with these two trios. I’d like to know if you let everybody involved know what your ideas were before the sessions started or did you clue them in as things went on? Did you surprise everybody?
No I surprised myself a couple months before when I decided to do it. But everyone knew we were going to do this. We had a short rehearsal the week before where we played through some of the music we were going to do double trio, so I wasn’t a surprise in that sense.
Was everyone excited about the idea or was there some apprehension?
Everyone was excited…maybe a little scared because we hadn’t done anything like this. Certainly I hadn’t and I don’t think any of us had. In fact, I purposely scheduled in such a way that, while we originally had two days of recording scheduled when we were going to do the single trios, when I decided to do the double trio I scheduled an extra day purposely because I thought it would be a good way to get everybody loose. Plus it would give us the option of recording in the single trio if the double trio didn’t work.
It must’ve been gratifying for you to feel the enthusiasm from everyone else when you told them what your ideas were. You have talked about getting the idea (for the double trio) then having second thoughts about it but not being able to let it go, so the positive reaction must’ve been fulfilling.
I think everyone conceptually thought “OK, let’s try this” but then here was the sense of gratification we all felt when we got into doing it. There was a certain amount of skepticism, but then when we started playing, it wasn’t so much we knew the music sounded good or even that it worked, it was just so much fun. It was just a fresh enjoyable experience for all of us—there was such a great spirit. We’ve all played together a lot and we’ve all had a great time playing together in various combinations, but this was something very very fresh.
Looking at the credits, I noticed you had everybody moving around in single trios in addition to everyone playing all at once. Was that a conscious decision on your part or was it a scheduling issue?
No, that was a conscious decision. My original concept for the album was that I had a bunch of original music I wanted to record in the trio format and my second concept was that I would do different songs with different bassists and drummers in different trio combinations.
I was kind of surprised the CD starts out at a pretty temperate pace then picks up speed as it goes along. Was that how the sessions went or was that how you felt the sequence of tracks should go?
The sequence on the record really has no bearing on the sequence in which we recorded. In fact, the tune that starts out the record is not really a tune. It’s basically just a free improvisation and a pretty abstract and wandering one at that and that’s a very unexpected way to start a record out and a very atypical one for me especially. Honestly, it’s something I questioned because it’s not the kind of intro that grabs you.
There are two reasons I felt it was appropriate: it just so happens that piece ends in a way that segues perfectly into the next piece which is really the first tune on the record—it served as a really good prologue. But it also served as a prologue to the whole album too because that sense of wandering and openness, of the unknown, that ethereal sense is a lot of what this record is about.
I noticed the strict logic of how one track ends and one track begins, but I liked the beginning especially as the album went on: it’s as if when you began to play and everyone joined in, it was like you were all calling on the muse to come in and give you the ideas that would lead you through the rest of the album. You reference the use the title of the album as a verb [to accomplish) as well as a noun; that must’ve felt like a pretty reflection of how you felt when it was all done. How soon into the sessions were you when you said to yourself (if you did) “Hey this is working out the way I hoped it would!”
The key is I didn’t have any hope about how it would work out. I hoped it would work out in that it wouldn’t be a complete disaster, but I didn’t have a plan or a vision for a lot of this music, especially the double trio stuff. The big lesson this project taught me was that an idea can work out without having a need for it to work out.
There’s a great clarity to everybody’s playing on the album. [Drummer] Brian Blade would play with [bassist] Larry Grenadier, [bassist] Reuben Rogers would play with Brian, then [drummer] Gregory Hutchinson would play with Larry, and then you would all play together. It is so seamless it almost sounds like it was recoded from start to finish in one great moment of inspiration.
I wish that were the case! I like sequences that really flow and I tend to sequence albums with that in mind as opposed to a lot of sequencing which has a lot to do with trying to put the strongest material first. Not many people hear whole albums and what they hear first will shape their opinion of the album. But my attitude is that, as long as we have the luxury of still making albums—which probably isn’t going to continue that much longer—why not take advantage of the format?
I had the thought that this is a well-structured and well-executed piece of music at large, but that we are heading into a realm where it might become an obsolete idea to make an “album.” We may already be there for all intents and purposes.
I think we are already if not at least halfway there. Younger generations don’t consume music the same way and it’s not a bad thing, it’s just different. I hope the album is not obsolete but I’d be surprised if it’s not an anachronism a few years from now if not less
Do you make the final decision on the track sequence? Do you decide yourself or put together a couple different track sequences and bounce ’em off your cohorts and see what they think?
The sequencing is generally me and Bob Hurwitz, the president of Nonesuch Records, takes a very active role in commenting and advising on the sequencing. Oftentimes James Farber, the engineer on most of my albums who is also the co-producer, has a big role in that as well. But in this particular case, I came up with the sequence and we came up with a bunch of other sequences along the way, but we ended up with this one.
Is it pretty much the same kind of logic you use to sequence an album that you would use when you go on stage with your band?
It’s the same logic in the sense that I want the album or performance to have a shape and a flow. But in an album context, in a certain sense, the dynamic is different. I rarely start a performance off with a ballad, for example, but I have started records off with a ballad.
There’s an aspect to the shape of a performance where there are less options, but within the shape of an album there are more; for example, the shape of this sequence on this album I can’t see doing live.
On the other hand, there are very many possible live combinations of these tunes. I really felt this was really the only way to sequence the record, the best way, and I don’t often feel that way.
It occurred to me as I noticed you were doing the shows with the trios, how it would work if you played the album in sequence for a set?
It would be interesting. If we were to play this album live it would be like three sets because the tunes wouldn’t be so short. One thing about shows is that I never have setlists; certain songs work well as openers and certain songs work well as closers, but generally I think band members are frustrated because I call everything from the bandstand. Jazz is about improvisation and I think that aspect should extend to every part of the performance.
I took note of your comments in the press material accompanying the album where you reflected on how your life has become generally peaceful yet there’s also a sense of frustration and confusion. I wondered how that state of mind had to do with the creative impulse for this project?
I wouldn’t want to be going through those things on a regular basis and I don’t necessarily subscribe to the romantic notion that there has to be pain and struggle for the music to be good. But I‘ll certainly say this psychological struggle had an impact on my music in this case: writing this music, then recording and performing it at a time when I was going through those struggles was cathartic. These are moods and attitudes, an urgency that’s expressed in this music that hasn’t been there before.