Australian Musician


Joshua Redman: Beyond


Andrián Pertout speaks to New York based saxophonist Joshua Redman about his beginnings, his saxophone technique, and jazz in the twenty-first century.

New York based saxophonist Joshua Redman is widely recognized as “one of the most celebrated and popular young musicians in jazz today,” and represents the new breed of jazz artists.  According to the Associated Press, this Grammy Award nominee and son of tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman is undoubtedly, “the crown prince of the saxophone,” while in the words of Pat Metheny he is, “the most important new musician in twenty years.”  Joshua Redman has performed and recorded with many of today’s major musical figures, such as Dave Brubeck, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Chaka Khan, B.B. King, Pat Metheny and Marcus Miller; his talent officially recognized in 1991 with the first prize in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Competition.  In 1993, his self-titled debut and follow-up ‘Wish’ albums collectively went on to sell over a quarter of a million copies, a rare event outside of the pop-jazz world.  His latest offering is titled ‘Beyond’ and represents his seventh release to date.  The album features Joshua Redman on tenor, alto and soprano saxophone, and includes Aaron Goldberg on piano, Ruben Rogers on bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums, as well as a guest appearance by tenor saxophonist Mark Turner.

How did your musical career initially take off?

JR: ”I spent the first twenty-two years of my life training to be pretty much everything but a musician (chuckles).  I played music from a very early age, but never wanted to pursue it professionally.  I started playing saxophone when I was ten, but played other instruments before that – and actually the first instruments I ever played were not even western instruments.  I grew up in Berklee, California, and my mum took me to this place called ‘The Centre for World Music’, which was basically a centre where you could get introductory instruction.  And you know, really basic instruction in a lot of world musics, Indian music, Indonesian music, Middle Eastern music.  So the first instruments I ever played were these South Indian drums and Indonesian Gamelan.  I played in a Gamelan orchestra when I was four years old, and then taught myself a little guitar, took a few piano lessons, played the recorder, the clarinet, and then the saxophone.  But I wasn’t serious about it, I loved it, and I thought I had some talent for it, but it wasn’t something that I focused on and that I had any discipline with.  And when I was in high school I played in the jazz bands, and did a lot of local gigs, but once again I had no intention of being a professional musician.  So I went to Harvard University in Boston, and enrolled as a pre-med there, but then ended up majoring in sociology – that led me to an interest in going to law school, so I applied and was accepted into Yale law school.  And I had every intention of going, I took what I thought was going to be a year off, just to kind of chill and relax, and moved to New York during that year.  And in New York I got caught up in the jazz scene, and found myself with an opportunity to play with great, great musicians.  And from that point on I just kind of never looked back, I just followed that path.  And here I am today (chuckles).“

Do you subscribe to any particular philosophy or technique with regards to playing the saxophone?

JR: ”To me technique is never an agenda, it’s a resource, but technique is always incidental.  What I try to do with the saxophone is: I am trying to sing through the saxophone.  And I think drummers are trying to sing, pianists are trying to sing.  Once again my goal is to try to communicate these things that are inside of me, and to try to express them in hopefully original and creative ways.  And over time I have developed an interest in exploring the saxophone as a textural instrument, not just as a purely melodic instrument.  But I think I do see the saxophone as a melody instrument, and that’s my focus.  And most of my great influences on the saxophone were great melodists.”

In the classical world what you do is regarded as extended techniques, but in your world it is probably just a normal part of playing.

JR: ”We just don’t have an official name for it, but I suppose it is extended techniques.  I mean, it’s not normal in the sense that there are a lot of great saxophone players who don’t do that, and those techniques.  But it’d be hard to find someone to teach them to you.  I’ve never taken any lessons on the saxophone, but people ask me ‘How do you do that?’ and I can’t really explain it.  It’s just something that I taught myself.   There are a lot of things that you can do on the saxophone that aren’t what it was originally intended to do.  You know, you can get harmonics out of it, you can slap tongue it, you can pop the notes, and there’s a whole range of the saxophone called the altissimo range that I actually explore a lot, which is really way above the range that you are supposed to play the instrument in.  So I guess it’s extended techniques, but for me it’s more like those are just natural extensions of my search.  It’s not like I sat down one day and was like, ‘OK, I wanna learn a new technique on the saxophone.’  In the course of playing, and in the course of hearing other people play, you start to hear things, and I guess I’m trying to stretch the limits of my resources on my instrument, because the more things I can do, the more I can express.
“The key is not to get into the trap of gimmickry, because things like that can really become gimmicks.  And that’s actually something that I learnt from my father, one thing he used to always tell me.  There’s something that he did with the saxophone, he sang through the saxophone, and it became something very identifiable with him, and he actually stopped doing it for while, because he felt like it was becoming a gimmick.  He said, ‘I don’t ever want to do it as a gimmick, I want to do it as something that I feel naturally.’  And I can start to relate to that, because for example, I’ve been doing this slap tonguing thing now for the last few years, and it’s gotten to the point where sometimes young saxophone players will come to the show, and after the show, if I don’t do it, they will be like, ‘Man, we came to see you slap tongue.  Why didn’t you do that?’  And I don’t even think about that, because it’s like something that I will only do if I feel a need for it, if the music calls for it.  But you could fall into the trap of thinking, ‘This is a technique that I do, so it’s part of my job as an entertainer to do that every night.’”

Tell me about jazz at present.  Where do you feel that it’s heading stylistically?

JR: ”It’s heading stylistically in multitude of directions, and I think that the vast majority of them are very positive.  The thing that you have to understand about jazz, maybe in difference to thirty or forty years ago is that there is no sense of a clear linear stylistic evolution.  There’s a time earlier in the history of jazz, forget about thirty years ago, but sixty years ago, where it was clear.  You know, ‘New Orleans’ led to ‘swing’, which led to ‘be bop’, which led to ‘cool’, so it was clear, this was the next step.  Now, I think people are stepping in all different directions.  There’s been a lot of interesting things I think done with the relationship between jazz and whatever you want to call it, ‘hip hop music’.  Some of those I like, some I don’t, but that’s a very interesting direction.  There’s really creative stuff going on with jazz and Latin music.  There’s jazz and techno, there’s people exploring the relationship between jazz and classical, jazz and world music, and then there’s just jazz and jazz (laughs).  So I don’t think it’s any one direction, there’s a lot of creative musicians out there doing interesting things, but you can’t look for ‘the’ next big innovation in the way you could thirty or forty years ago.  I think that there’s a lot of innovative things happening, but they’re happening perhaps more subtlety.“

How would you describe your own personal approach to composition in this arena?

JR: ”For me composition exists to communicate something emotional, but more importantly there’s the composition itself, which hopefully should stand on its own, in the sense that the composition should be evocative and expressive as a piece.  But for me still the most important thing in jazz is improvisation, so all the compositions I write have to not only be expressive within themselves but should serve as springboards for expressive improvisation.  They have to be inspiring for us as improvisers and as a band.”

So I suppose that’s why you follow the standard method of having a head and solos.

JR: ”Yeah, you can definitely chart most of our songs with that kind of formula, but I’ve found a great amount of freedom within that formula.  Even if we’ve played the melody, and let’s say, I’m taking a solo, especially with this band now, there’s a tremendous amount of interaction that’s going on at all times, and things that Greg, Reuben or Aaron do will influence profoundly the direction that I’ll take improvisationally.  So yes, so from a very macro-like perspective you could see it like, ‘head, solo, solo, head’, but within that there is so much fluidity and collective interaction that it’s almost like that formula almost becomes irrelevant, in the sense that you read it like a great novel – a great novel may follow a certain formula of character and plot development, and you’ve got chapters, but ultimately that formula becomes irrelevant because the writer’s craft is so singular.  And not that that’s what we have, but I think that’s what we’re striving for as a band.”

How do you avoid the trap of ending up with a jazz that is contrived?

JR: ”Being precious, being contrived, that element of artifice, especially with art musics like jazz and classical – it’s so easy to get self-important when you don’t even realize it.  I think that jazz and classical, they are very important musics, and there are things that separate art musics from more popular forms of music, but I think ultimately all musicians should be after the same thing, which is to try to express themselves.  And I know that that sounds kind of simplistic, but that’s what really music is, it’s a type of expression that ultimately to me has to do with emotion and spirit.  And that is the same with all forms of music, or all forms of good music.  Now of course popular musicians have another agenda, they’re also entertainers, so their image, their stage presence, their performance, all of those things, sometimes there’s almost as much of a focus on that as in the musical expression itself.  But still, I think at heart, the best pop performers are like the best jazz performers, they’re just trying to make some kind of emotional statement to their music.”

What was the artistic ambition behind your latest release of ‘Beyond’?

JR: ”Simply, the same ambition as a set of compositions that allow us as a band to enter a certain original and creative improvisational territory, and to try to capture those compositions, and the performances in those compositions at moments in time, on a record, hopefully in an inspired way.  And that’s the same as any record I’ve done.  Now, there really is a sense that I have with this music and this record that I’m starting to find something which is much more personal and original than some of the earlier stuff I have done.  So to me, right now, it seems to signal a new stage, just in terms of feeling like the music is more ours than previous records that I have done.  And there are conceptual elements that really maybe go beyond some of the traditional elements of jazz.  There are things that we are doing with time signatures that are really different, and really hard in some ways (chuckles), but I don’t focus on those too much because those aren’t ends in themselves.  You know, I could go through the tunes and tell you how one is in thirteen, one is in nine and one is in ten, but I don’t do that to prove that we can do it, it’s just that I’ve started to hear music that’s not in the traditional kind of four-four swing time.  And I find that a lot of those songs allow us to get to a different type of feeling than the traditional four-four swing does.”

Do you have any special events coming up in the near future?

JR: ”There is something that I’m doing out in San Francisco.  San Francisco has had a jazz festival now for about twenty years, and the organization that puts that festival on, SF Jazz, is now starting to spring concert series and asked me to be artistic director of that series.  And it’s the first time I’ve been involved in the music business in a way other than strictly as a performer.  I’m involved in helping them put the events together and select the different musicians, so it’s interesting, and it’s definitely a new project and something that I enjoy doing so far.”

‘Beyond’ out on WEA Records.


'Australian Musician' ~ Issue 22, Winter, June 5, 2000


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