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Saxophonically Speaking

Joshua Redman's sonorous voice on tenor

September-October 2013

Joshua Redman

Joshua Redman

Elizabeth Attenborough

Epiphany arrived for jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman ’91 on one of the first nights he ever shared a stage with his father—Dewey Redman, a tenor sax player who had led bands and played free jazz with Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett, and many others.

For the first 18 years of his life, Joshua rarely saw his dad. (His mother raised him in Berkeley, California, while his father settled in the jazz hub of New York City.) He did see him play on occasion, but “he was an influence from afar,” the son says, “like other great saxophonists I had heard.”

But by his early twenties, when he first played regularly with his father, the younger Redman had become an accomplished jazzman in his own right. “It was one of the most inspiring and intimidating things, to play with my dad,” he recalls. “At that point I perhaps had certain talents and skills as a saxophonist. I had some interesting improvisational ideas and could get a flow going. I could create a narrative line in my solos, and bring surprise and playfulness in, too. But playing next to my dad, I realized how worthless these things were in relationship to his sound. He had such a deep, warm, tenor-saxophone sound—it was really a voice for him. He’d start playing a solo, and it made what I was playing sound like video-game music. I was just overwhelmed by his sound.”

So the younger musician, who had always hated to practice, began applying advice his father had bestowed when he learned his son was playing the sax: “You’ve got to practice your long tones.” Long tones help develop the full, rounded saxophone sound that is so pleasing to listeners. The woodshedding paid off: New York Times reviewer Nate Chinen has described Joshua Redman’s sonorous tone as having an “inner glow,” adding that Redman “has stood for a notion of jazz that’s rigorous and porous, edifying and approachable, dying to prove nothing beyond its own quality of expression.”

Redman’s sound enriches his newest album, a collection of ballads titled Walking Shadows, the sixteenth CD in a recording career that began in 1993. The new disc includes his longtime associates Brad Mehldau (piano), Larry Grenadier (bass), and Brian Blade (drums)—plus, on six songs, a chamber string orchestra, with flute and French horn. “The strings add a richness and a lushness, a romanticism and even a touch of nostalgia to the music,” Redman explains on his website. Along with jazz standards like “Stardust” and “Lush Life,” as well as originals by Redman and Mehldau, Walking Shadows includes novel choices: the Adagio from Bach’s Toccata in C major for organ never sounded so lyrical as here, and the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” after an opening homage to its gospel roots, takes flight as an energized, playful saxophone improv.

Redman took up the tenor at age 10; he is essentially self-taught. He didn’t make the Harvard Jazz Band on his first tryout, but eventually played with them for two and a half years while finding time to graduate summa cum laude in social studies. He also had a period when he “really got into jazz as a listener—it was the only music I’d listen to,” he recalls. “Every jazz musician goes through a ‘jazz geek’ phase, when they can tell you who played what on every recording.”

After college he deferred matriculation at Yale Law School and moved to Brooklyn to live in Park Slope with friends from the Berklee College of Music. “I guess I wanted a breather before starting up” at Yale, he says. “I was hoping to relax, hang, party, get a relatively low-stress job, maybe volunteer some, hopefully play a bit of music on the side. I was on a year’s deferment. Turned out to be a never-ending year!” He won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition in the fall of 1991 and “great musicians started to call.” Within six months, he could pay his rent and “eat at least one square meal a day” on his jazz earnings. “The more I had the chance to play jazz with some of the very best musicians alive,” he says, “the more I sensed its beauty, its profundity, and how essential it was to my life.”

The saxophone “is an extension of yourself—not your body, but your self,” he explains. “In some rare moments, you are so connected with your axe [instrument] that the saxophone itself fades away, and it’s just pure self-expression. That’s the ideal we’re all striving for.”

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