By Jesse Starita
It’s no secret: Adaptation and evolution are essential for human beings to survive. But these qualities also extend to artists and record companies. Without it, they struggle to maintain viability and vitality. With it, creative frontiers are opened, new markets appear and, more often than not, both parties reap the rewards. Yet, making these transformations on paper is one thing. Converting them to full-length musical statements is another.
For his past two albums, tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman made his Darwinian determination - funk. But, Back East
, his latest effort, showcases the artist in full transition from groove to eastern experimentation. Part swinging, part ruminant and wholly fulfilling, his 10th studio release dexterously combines jazz with nontraditional rhythms and melodies.
Redman, who graduated near the top of his class at Harvard University, traded law school for a career in jazz. His early ’90s releases are fine hard-bop documents but did little to break new ground. Yearning to create his own voice (his father, Dewey, was a great altoist), Redman spent the last six years crafting jazz fusion a la early ’70s Herbie Hancock. While 2002’s Elastic
is a respectable album, none of the releases captured his full artistic arsenal - until now.
begins with two trio pieces. The first cut, Rogers and Hammerstein’s “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” is a showcase of swing. Bassist Larry Grenadier is in particularly fine form and is a force to be reckoned with throughout the album. “Zarafah” is our first indication of an eastbound change in direction. It’s irregular bass line and drumming is a testament to Grenadier and drummer Brian Blade’s rhythmic fortitude. Redman also makes acute use of the soprano, giving the track a discernable eastern sound and tempo. Wayne Shorter’s “Indian Song,” featuring tenor titan Joe Lovano, actually falls quite short of expectations. The tandem never feels in sync and the playing sounds forced and chaotic.
However, the album’s second half is peppered with marvelous arrangements, audacious soloing and thoughtful compositions. “Indonesia” is a breezy, flowing Redman piece, and drummer Ali Jackson’s tambourine work is a testament to that instrument’s liveliness. But, “India” is undoubtedly the album’s pinnacle. Featuring Dewey Redman on alto, the quartet kicks into gear with an all-guns blazing bravado. Father and son engage in a spirited call and response that is a guaranteed toe-tapper and finger-snapper. Redman senior passed away just five months after this recording session but still plays with a most animated alto. “GJ” gives Dewey Redman the last word as he plays alongside Grenadier and Jackson for a fitting conclusion.
Thus, while Redman’s adaptations are not quite as significant as, say, stone tool production, harnessing fire and bipedalism, he skillfully proves that artists can change, move forward and expand their ideas to produce excellent sensory upgrades.