Blowing down the walls

In the eternal debate between nature and nurture, saxophonist Joshua Redman might cause adherents from both sides of the argument to scratch their heads in wonder.

On the one hand, he's the son of free-jazz saxophone legend and Fort Worth native Dewey Redman, whose tonal qualities and agility are certainly echoed in Joshua's playing. On the other hand, he grew up as Joshua Shedroff in Berkeley, California, a continent away from his father in New York City. He was raised alone by his mother, Renee Shedroff, a dancer who more or less singled out the elder Redman to father her child. He only became known as Joshua Redman after graduating summa cum laude from Harvard in 1991 and exploring the New York jazz and arts scene in what was intended as a sabbatical before entering Yale Law School.

"It's funny--a lot of people ask me that question," says Redman of the nature-versus-nurture debate. "I'm partial to the nurture theory myself. I can definitely see that there are aspects of musical talent that are physical, and therefore genetic--things like whether or not you have perfect pitch, for instance. But I really believe that the core of a musical soul has to do with attitude, being true to yourself and expressing yourself. What music is about is what environment is about--communication, interaction, attitude."

As his mother went on welfare to raise him, Redman "grew up very poor." Yet he gushes on about how she was an "amazing" person who had a profoundly positive influence on his character and accomplishments. "She made sure I got a great education, and also made sure I was exposed to a rich variety of cultural options," Joshua says. "She never pressured me to live my life any certain way, other than to be the right kind of person--involved and interactive, and a good, sensitive human being."

Redman started playing saxophone at 11, and saw his father when Dewey came to the West Coast to perform. But even though he continued making music through high school and college, he never planned on becoming a professional musician--"anything but," he insists. The reason? He thought he wasn't good enough, not talented enough to make a living or a name in a world in which his father was regarded as something of a hero. When he did become a jazzer, Joshua says, quite simply, it happened in "a rather dramatic way."

While playing the New York jazz clubs in '91, Redman was hailed by noted jazz critic Gary Giddens in a full-page Village Voice article as something approaching the Second Coming. He then won the prestigious Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition in Washington, D.C. Shortly after that, Warner Bros. Records signed him to a long-term recording contract, and Yale Law School lost a student.

Now, over the course of four albums under his own name--as well as stints playing with the likes of Pat Metheney, rapper Big Daddy Kane, jazz piano great McCoy Tyner, and R&B singer Me'Shell Nedege'Ocello--Redman has certainly fulfilled the promise Giddens spied in him.

In fact, his latest album--this year's Spirit of the Moment, recorded live at the legendary Village Vanguard--is among the definitive jazz records of the year, if not so far this decade. Credited to the Joshua Redman Quartet (which includes pianist Peter Martin, bassist Christopher Thomas, and drummer Brian Blade), it contains some two-and-a-half hours of awesome and inspiring music. Recorded live to two-track and sequenced over two CDs like two subsequent club sets, the album explores the realm in which swing, bebop, and free jazz all gloriously and vibrantly intersect. (And remarkably, of the album's 14 tracks, only five are covers.)

Yet as much as the music bows to the golden years of jazz in the '50s and early '60s, when giants like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane were mixing it all up with stunning results, Spirit of the Movement lives up to the record's title by demonstrating the vitality of the current jazz renaissance, one that is fueled, ironically, by such genetically linked fellow young lions as the Marsalis brothers and the Harper Brothers.

"Playing acoustic jazz is not about recapitulation," Redman insists. "It's about playing it now. Jazz is a music of the moment."

McToy Tyner is a man whose opinion can be trusted. From 1958 to 1965, he was the sole piano player with whom John Coltrane performed; he appears on such influential milestones as My Favorite Things, A Love Supreme, and The Africa/Brass Sessions, not to mention so many of his own albums as bandleader and frontman. Tyner, who continues to perform to this day and has just released the new album Infinity, understands and appreciates the music like few others.

And so he has little patience with a crop of young jazzers who come out of music school, knowing jazz technique but little of its tradition, and land the big-money record contracts. Tyner speaks of a musician like Dallas' Roy Hargrove, a Young Turk hailed as the real thing even though he has yet to play one club date. "Roy's talented, but before a guy reaches a point of maturity, you give him all these accolades," Tyner says. "He feels like, 'I've arrived. What do I have to strive for?'" Tyner insists that a real jazz musician must come from the clubs, that the real and only school is a stage in a smoky club.

"Jazz is a lifestyle you must assume," he says. "It's not something you can pick up. You have to live the music, you have to play it. But they're offered a tremendous amount of money, and some of them figure, 'That's it. I'm there. I've arrived. And it takes a lot more than that--a lot more. You really have to play and figure out where you are because it's nice to be inspired by someone else, but somewhere inside of you is yourself and that's what you're trying to achieve. You're trying to bring yourself out."

So when he tapped Joshua Redman to join him for a project last year, he did so because Redman is far more than another "young blood" (to use Tyner's words); Tyner picked him because he considers Redman an honest-to-God contemporary, an heir to a throne abandoned by so many of the men McCoy played with decades before Joshua was even born.

"Joshua came up playing," Tyner says. "It's his whole life. I tried to get the best young guys on that date, and Joshua's one of them. These guys, like Joshua and Antonio Hart and Christian McBride, are already on a certain level. They're already on their way."

And indeed, Redman himself would insist that Spirit of the Movement is merely a "summation" of a young career, a step toward something far different; like a young Coltrane, whose career evolved so quickly in a short span once he got off Prestige and then went to the Atlantic and Impulse! labels, Redman at least displays the potential to grow just as rapidly.

A performance like the one he renders on the self-penned "Count Me Out" from Spirit showcases a confident musician whose ability transcends his inspiration: With short and rapid-fire bursts, fiery squawks and loud honks, he finds that tenuous middle ground where a song almost (but not quite) loses the melody and disintegrates into an experiment in noise and sound. He can play the ballads ("Second Show"), the big-band bop ("Remember"), whatever is placed in front of him. For all the street-smart articulation displayed by this Berkeley-bred Harvard grad, Redman nonetheless strives for those sweet moments of unintellectual, unfettered natural expression in his music.

"My approach was: I play music because I want to," Redman says. "It makes me feel good, it makes me creative. Now the challenge is to keep that. The important thing is to be able to do it that way, to make every day feel like the first time I picked up the saxophone in a year."

Having more or less stumbled into a jazz career, Redman is also able to savor the sweetness of his success. "It really makes me believe in fate, and I'm a fairly skeptical person," he says."One of the great things about not having this for part of my plan is that every little thing that happens is this great surprise, something really wonderful," he concludes, perhaps unconsciously alluding to those similar moments of musical magic that make for great jazz. "You know the old thing they say about the icing on the cake? Well, my life is all icing at this point."

Joshua Redman performs December 2 at the Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth.

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Rob Patterson