Saturday, September 22, 2007

Heading Way Out West to Hear "Back East"

Joshua Redman's last scheduled appearance in this area was rained out in Denton back in the spring of '06. A trip to Houston last March to see the SFJAZZ Collective (from which Redman has since stepped down as musical director) sated the appetite for a while, but it was high time for a full-blown Redman experience, and last night's performance at Jazz by the Boulevard in Ft. Worth delivered as promised.

Redman is touring with a trio these days, in support of his newest release Back East, which has been promoted as an homage to the classic 1957 Sonny Rollins release, Way Out West. The older recording was also done in tenor/bass/drums format, and they have two songs in common, "I'm An Old Cowhand" and "Wagon Wheels." It takes a master saxophonist to pull of the chordless trio format and maintain interest for an entire set, and it takes a brave saxophonist to pay such obvious tribute to the still-alive-and-kicking (and playing) Rollins fifty years after the original recording. Redman succeeds on both counts, and last night's performance added to the enjoyment of the new music.

Back East actually features several bass/drum tandems (Larry Grenadier/Ali Jackson, Christian McBride/Brian Blade, and Reuben Rogers/Eric Harland), as well as a few guest saxophonists (Joe Lovano, Chris Cheek and Redman's late father Dewey, who is much appreciated here in his native Ft. Worth). For this show, bassist Rogers was joined by longtime Redman associate Gregory Hutchinson on drums, and the group formed a cohesive unit that made a seamless transition from recording to live performance. Although the first three tunes of the set ("The Surrey With the Fringe On Top," "East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)" and "Zarafah") did match the first three tracks of the recording, it was like listening to everything for the first time again, as the three players expanded and reinvented the music, sending it to even greater heights (we realized at about the one-hour mark that they were only on their fifth tune, but time passed quickly; we could have listened to this for hours on end).

Redman's tenor dazzled as usual, going from a solid low register to otherworldly altissimo (often within mere seconds of each other) while sharing a wellspring of creativity. His soprano playing (what a big, thick sound from the small horn!) evoked otherwordly sounds on the Middle Eastern-influenced "Zarafah" (yes, the "East" of Back East doesn't just refer to New York, where it was recorded). Rogers was given a lot of solo space as well, and he mixed exciting technique and creative lines with the ever-present open fifths (one of my younger cohorts in attendance called them "emo chords") that often framed the accompaniment. Hutchinson held it all together with taste and precision, and he got his chance to shine on Back East's title track. Another highlight was the inclusion of a tune that was originally recorded with a larger group: "Hide and Seek" (from 1996's Freedom in the Groove), which thrived in its trio reworking.

It had been way too long (1999, not counting the SFJAZZ performance) between Redman shows for me. Sure, I would still love to hear his electric Elastic Band someday, but this trio stood tall on its own merits and showed evidence of tremendous musical growth on the leader's part. Were it not for the 11 p.m. outdoor stage curfew, this group could have played for a lot longer, as they undoubtedly had a lot of music left in them. I'm already looking forward to the next time.

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