Sharin Foo of Raveonettes at Coachella 2010
Saxophonist Joshua Redman’s Compass opens with the plaintive “Uncharted,” a collective improvisation involving Redman’s tenor saxophone, drums (Gregory Hutchinson), and two basses (Larry Grenadier and Reuben Rogers). Its title can be interpreted as a reference to the type of music Redman hopes to stumble upon on the album’s musical orienteering.
Avenues to Innovation
Modern jazz is quite focused on innovation, and innovation seems to be achieved in three ways: mining non-jazz musical genres, timbral branding, and complex rhythmic structures.
It used to be that simply covering a piece by Björk or Radiohead was a means to forging a new path in jazz, but as the latest album by The Bad Plus (For All I Care ) points out, virtually any style is fair game for the modern jazz musician. It is no longer special for a composer to reach for those moods that are only available through rock and classical music techniques.
Young musicians ubiquitously copy the cerebral timbres Kurt Rosenwinkel and Mark Turner draw out of their guitar and saxophone combination, and Miguel Zenón’s mixed complex meters are setting a new standard for rhythmic possibility.
Uncharted Musical Territory?
This is certainly enough to leave even the phenomenal Joshua Redman wondering how to sharpen his album with the cutting edge. Compass does involve some newness, namely the use of a "double trio." Redman is the pivot around which bassists Reuben Rogers and Larry Grenadier, and drummers Brian Blade and Gregory Hutchinson revolve. Some of the tracks feature just one of the trios, some draw from both, and still others involve the whole team.
This, however, doesn’t have much power in giving the group a new, cutting edge sound. There may be two bassists, but Rogers and Grenadier are experts when it comes to staying out of each other’s way. Even on tracks like “Moonlight” (a take on Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”), when both rhythm sections play together, the open, reverberating effect is not much different from that achieved by a standard saxophone trio.
‘Compass’ Points in All Directions
Compass is refreshing in spite, or perhaps because of its relative conservatism. Redman’s compositions involve some classical inflection, as well as some mixed meter, and his playing is virtuosic and garrulous in the style of his contemporaries, but the album contributes nothing new in terms of the three avenues of innovation. Instead, Redman declares his contribution to jazz’ advancement by having studied all of the tools of modern and traditional jazz, mastering each one, and putting his own stamp on the result.
Compass’ point is that innovation isn’t everything. This is emphasized by tracks like “Round Reuben,” a bluesy post-bop piece that incorporates a double time swing feel and brings Sonny Rollins to mind. The tune suggests that traditional jazz styles are not to be eschewed as other genres encroach upon their territory, but instead that they are relevant in the same way that Beethoven’s music is. Although it isn't fresh and hip, it's a reliable means of bringing about a certain mood or effect.
At times, however, “Round Reuben” collapses into a rhythmically and harmonically loose, melancholic texture piece, owing to a free jazz sensibility. Perhaps this digression is meant to be a reminder that no matter what style serves as a basis for a jazz work, that style must reflect today’s currents. Bebop alone simply can’t represent the malaise and confusion swirling about in a world tormented by a series of unpopular wars and a universal economic crisis. Other styles are necessary to link today’s music to today’s worries.
If Redman’s Compass can be seen as an implicit comment on the state of things, then the sorrow and uncertainty of the final track, “Through the Valley,” is evocative of a sulking trudge through tough circumstances.
January 13th, 2009 on Nonesuch Records
- Joshua Redman – Tenor and Soprano Saxophones
- Reuben Rogers – Bass
- Larry Grenadier – Bass
- Brian Blade – Drums
- Gregory Hutchinson – Drums
- Identity Thief
- Just Like You
- Hutchhiker’s Guide
- Un Peu Fou
- Round Reuben
- Little Ditty
- Through the Valley