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Redman, Mehldau, McBride & Blade: Collaboration in Action
Reviewing a new release by a jazz supergroup
Welcome music lovers to another edition of ‘Listening Sessions.’
This edition’s essay is a bit of a change from my usual focus on music from the fifties into the seventies.
The latest recording from tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, co-leading with his all-star mates: pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade, recently arrived on my porch and I’ve been enjoying it for a few weeks now.
The album, LongGone, is a superb example of jazz played by some of the finest players on the scene. Redman and his associates have been making highly collaborative music for three decades and counting now. The bond forged between these musicians is inspiring and that thought is the springboard for a review of their new LP, which is worth hearing and owning too.
I hope you enjoy the essay and please do drop a comment at the end to let me know your thoughts.
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In 2020, when the world seemed so small, simple gestures and pleasures took on outsized proportions. How else to explain the feeling when reading the insert inside of RoundAgain, an album recorded in September 2019 and released in July 2020 that reunited a short-lived quartet from the mid nineties under the leadership of tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman?
Found there were brief acknowledgements by Redman and the rest of the band: pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade. The sentiments weaved through them: the brotherhood of musicians, the long-standing musical associations between the four and the joy of once again playing together as a unit were poignantly resonant back then and remain so to this day. They speak to the affinity that develops between certain collectives of musicians (Redman, Mehldau, McBride and Blade among them) that are meant to make music together.
The term supergroup emerged outside of the jazz lexicon, becoming popular in the late sixties for rock groups with formidable lineups—the short-lived Blind Faith, with Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton, Ric Grech and Ginger Baker, being as good a textbook example as any. But, really, the first supergroups were in jazz. Arguably the greatest of them all was Miles Davis’ short-lived sextet of 1958. With Davis was Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto, John Coltrane on tenor, Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums. Davis, Adderley, Coltrane and Evans: each arguably the most influential soloist on their respective instrument during the latter part of 20th-century jazz. Adderley, Coltrane and Evans all went from Davis’ band to form groups of their own that each, in their own distinct way, made a vital contribution to how small-group jazz could sound, could approach the music and could engage each member’s talents within a group concept.
Confession time: while I humbly submit that my knowledge of jazz in the fifties and sixties has a certain breadth and depth, it is far more spotty from the seventies onward. But, I know enough to recognize that the aggregation of Redman, Mehldau, McBride and Blade has similar stature to Davis’ late fifties sextet. After they ceased to be a working unit, all three of Redman’s sidemen, as well as himself, became leading players of their generation while also branching out well beyond the confines of the jazz world. Indeed, in these four peerless musicians is a panoply of music that stretches from Bach to James Brown and everything in between.
MoodSwing, the sole album they recorded as a steady unit, stands as a sturdy relic of the jazz renaissance that began with the emergence of Wynton Marsalis at the dawn of the eighties. True to its time, MoodSwing emphasizes jazz as the domain of the hip, the literate, the uncategorizably cool, the denizens of the night. In short, jazz as an elixir of life.
‘Chill’ best exemplifies this ethos. Its line is of a lineage with the earthy finger-snappers of pianist Horace Silver. It oozes cool, that special brand of cool in which only a chosen few can take its measure, dressing in bespoke threads, never once breaking a sweat, exuding a Zen-like calm, a magnet for quiet attention wherever he or she goes.
In his solo, Mehldau contrasts angular single-line runs with lightly bluesy chord clusters, all played with a gentle touch that belies the fire behind his ideas. Redman and McBride then trade phrases—initially eight bars and moving gradually to just one measure over a static harmonic pulse by Mehldau and Blade—that tap into the source, eschewing Mehldau’s bookish hipness for a slightly less aloof brand of cool.
Despite its length of 69 minutes (the CD era brought a marked increase in the length of albums which the vinyl revival has largely and thankfully ended), MoodSwing retains interest through a variety of moods: jittery on ‘Rejoice,’ playful on ‘Mischief,’ spiritual on ‘Dialogue,’ breezy on ‘Past in the Present’ and streetwise on ‘Heading Home’ as well as through its capturing of a moment of possibility: four jazz musicians, all in their early-20s, young lions on the New York scene spending their days scheming and striving, trying to make the dream a reality.
Move the clock forward a quarter of a century. In the years in between, the members of the quartet had played together at various times and configurations but save for a gig or two, never together again as a unit. That changed with RoundAgain.
“An individual musician is a temperament, a perspective, a stylist, a voice. But a band, at its best, is an organism, a faith, a sound, a groove. Perhaps, in music at best, there indeed exists a collective self.”
“I’m so thrilled to be playing with Josh, Christian and Brian again after all these years. We should have done this sooner.”
“I can’t wait to see and hear what the fourth decade and beyond has in store for us.”
“God bless and keep you brothers, always.”
Excerpts from the liner notes to RoundAgain.
MoodSwing’s cool posture gives way to an elasticity of pulse on RoundAgain, a sense that after the band plays the head of each tune there lies an adventure, a caper worth following as the four individual personalities in the group: Redman’s pristine, fully-rounded tone, Mehldau’s intricate keyboard dance, McBride’s well-rounded bottom and Blade’s implied time blend together to navigate the twists and turns of the album’s seven compositions: three by Redman, two by Mehldau, and one each by McBride and Blade.
Redman summed up the simpatico at play in an interview in Down Beat in the summer of 2020, referring to the quartet’s two nights of live rehearsal at the Falcon in upstate New York in September 2019 prior to three days of recording at Sear Sound in New York City. He said, “I wasn’t prepared for the sense of familiarity and comfort that was there from like, beat one, but as soon as we hit the blowing part and launched into this 4/4 swing, it was like, ‘Yes, this is us. I remember this.’”
This autumn brings a second batch of recordings, LongGone, from the 2019 sessions plus a live bonus. That may suggest that the album is a collection of leftovers and indeed, coupled with the fact that the photos on the front and back cover are from the same photo shoot as RoundAgain, it could be a compelling hypothesis but thankfully however, a listen to the music dispels this notion persuasively.
‘Long Gone,’ which opens the recording, has a nostalgic, bright feel. As Redman plays the theme, Blade drums around the edges of the time, keeping it intact while never doing so explicitly. He maintains an ongoing conversation between his kit and his bandmates of exquisite taste that never devolves into chaos. As critic Alex Bozikovic wrote in The Globe and Mail a few years ago, “Blade never plays a bad note.” McBride’s iron-clad lock on the bottom provides further license for Blade’s deeply intuitive approach to time keeping. Against it, Redman’s solo is unhurried, favouring a light tone that makes his tenor almost sound like an alto. It flows naturally to a conclusion that suggests a fully-formed short story. For Mehldau’s improvisation, Blade shifts to straight 4/4 time before gradually fracturing the pulse. Similar to Redman, Mehldau’s solo ends with a lovely resolution.
‘Disco Ears’ is a teetering obstacle course for both Redman and Mehldau to navigate. There is a similarity between these two master musicians, a clarity of tone—never harsh yet never overtly pretty but direct and clean—that brings attention to the architecture of their lines that are often lengthy as well as harmonically rich and probing. To hear them here is to be reminded that when jazz emphasizes the art of improvisation, it is often its most participatory, involving the listener to hear how the soloist navigates the structure of a composition and how that approach is altered from chorus to chorus.
This absorbing approach to listening is also compelled by ‘Statuesque,’ an ethereal ballad. Redman plays with deep fluidity here, the listener held in rapt attention so as to not miss what he will play next. Keeping one’s ear also peeled to hear Mehldau’s comping, one can catch more than one instance where he offers a germ of an idea to which Redman then incorporates into his improvisation.
‘Kite Song’ stands out primarily in how the theme—appropriately airborne—organically metamorphoses into the improvisations. Mehldau’s solo is of the two-handed variety, it dazzles in the fugal interweaving of left-handed and right-landed lines. When it’s Redman’s turn to solo, he raises the temperature but never boils over. He keeps things in check; similar to Hank Mobley, he never strays too far from the middle.
It’s another tenor saxophone great that ‘Ship to Shore’ brings to mind: Wayne Shorter. The fat groove that McBride’s bass spreads over the beat in combination with Redman’s looping theme is reminiscent of a Shorter composition like ‘Charcoal Blues’ from his 1964 Blue Note debut Night Dreamer. ‘Ship to Shore’ is the lone tune on LongGone in which rhythm is king as opposed to melody and harmony, and in their solos, McBride, Mehldau and Redman offer their distinct viewpoints: McBride slathers it on thick, his statement centred on the tune’s main riff, Mehldau speaks more abstractly, resisting being drawn in to its’ gutbucket modernism while Redman riffs it up and then, in the middle of his solo, switches to a series of rhapsodic ideas.
LongGone concludes by travelling back to 2007, about smack in the middle between the quartet as a working unit and its reunion. The occasion was the 25th annual San Francisco Jazz Festival. The band had reassembled to play a tribute to Thelonious Monk’s 1957 concert at Carnegie Hall with Coltrane, his tenor man at the time (the 2005 release of the show on Blue Note was a major archival release). In addition, they also revisited ‘Rejoice’ from MoodSwing. That performance closes out the album.
Starting as a stuttering vamp, Redman and Mehldau trade a vigorous series of phrases before Redman struts the main theme, a staccato burst of funk that reminds of Horace Silver’s ‘Dufus Rufus.’ The vamp returns with Redman and Mehldau’s lines blending into one another, producing a continuous, hard-edged counterpoint.
The solos that follow are based on a two-part structure powered by Blade: the first has him toying with the beat before he moves into a straight jazz swing, signifying the shift to the second section. Redman and Mehldau’s solos here are masterful excursions in extended improvisation. Both uncoil a unceasing flow of ideas, pushed along by McBride and Blade, that are exhilarating. Redman gets especially heated as he heads to the finish line. A more fitting close to the album couldn’t possibly be imagined.
As of the writing of this essay, Redman, Mehldau, McBride and Blade are touring Europe, suggesting that we may not have heard the last from this group on record. That’s a good thing, both from a music perspective as well as from the vantage point of the magic of collaboration—that special brew that is abundant when the right mix of individuals join forces in a common endeavour. No amount of corporate buzzwords or trendy management theory can capture or even approximate true, organic teamwork. Let others have their Zoom or Slack or blue-sky meetings, I’m sticking with Redman and his crew.