Joshua Redman, 'Back East' at Blues Alley Joshua Redman nearly became a lawyer, but the pull of jazz was stronger. Redman's father was the famous saxophonist Dewey Redman, and the sounds of jazz inspired him to take up the sax himself at age 10.
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Joshua Redman, 'Back East' at Blues Alley

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Joshua Redman, 'Back East' at Blues Alley

Joshua Redman, 'Back East' at Blues Alley

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

We're here in the storied(ph) Washington, D.C., jazz club, Blues Alley, with sax player Joshua Redman, who's just released a new recording called "Back East." Blues Alley has a small stage. The crew is setting up for tonight's performance. Tables and chairs are scattered around the room. The walls are exposed brick. It's dark. There's a bar in the back. It feels like an old jazz club in any American city 50 years ago.

"Back East" is Joshua Redman's 11th album, and it's his first recording with an acoustic trio. Listeners may detect a certain thematic similarity with an album that was recorded 50 years ago by Sonny Rollins titled "Way Out West."

(Soundbite of song, "I'm an Old Cowhand")

YDSTIE: Joshua Redman included "I'm an Old Cowhand" on "Back East" and several other tunes from the Rollins album. "Back East" also have songs by John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Rodgers and Hammerstein and pieces composed by Joshua Redman himself.

Joshua Redman, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us this morning.

Mr. JOSHUA REDMAN (Jazz Saxophonist): It's great to be here. Thanks for having me.

YDSTIE: Obviously, "Way Out West" was an inspiration for your new album, "Back East." Tell us how the idea developed.

Mr. REDMAN: Well, if I had to name my biggest influence as a saxophonist and an improviser, it would probably be Sonny Rollins. And I've been listening to his music since I started playing the saxophone since I was 10 years old. But when I set out to do this recording, the only concept for the recording was that I wanted to do acoustic trio record, a record with saxophone, bass and drums.

YDSTIE: Which is what the Rollins album was.

Mr. REDMAN: Exactly. But I wasn't really thinking about "Way Out West" or Sonny Rollins specifically. I just really wanted to do something in this, kind of, really stripped down intimate acoustic context. And, really, I was just, kind of - it was almost by accident. I was working on some music and I had my iTunes on in the background and it was on shuffle, and Sonny Rollins' "Way Out West" came on - actually, "I'm an Old Cowhand" - from the record came on.

I mean, I used to listen to record all the time, but I hadn't heard it for, probably, 10 years. And, you know, it just blew me away. I really have these kind of moments of inspiration, but - immediately, I would like to do my version of this song. And so I, kind of, whipped up an arrangement very fast, which is also something that I don't do. I don't usually work fast.

And it felt really good. And then I did an arrangement of "Wagon Wheels," which is another song from the record. So all of a sudden this project started to take on other themes than just, hey, I want to do a trio record.

YDSTIE: Yeah. Now, the trio is sax, acoustic bass and drums.

Mr. REDMAN: Exactly.

YDSTIE: No piano.

Mr. REDMAN: Exactly. No piano. It's a tremendously liberating format or instrumentation. There's a lot of freedom there. Because there is no piano, because there is no dedicated harmonic instrument, it gives me, as the saxophone player, and the bassist and the drummer so much room to experiment and to interact and to explore both melodically and harmonically and on all levels - rhythmically, texturally.

But it's also incredibly challenging. I mean, with that freedom comes great responsibility. And harmony really defines the sound of modern jazz in a lot of ways. So when you're playing without a dedicated harmonic instrument, there's that much more responsibility.

YDSTIE: And you're going to play an Oscar Hammerstein tune for us now, "The Surrey With The Fringe On Top."

Mr. REDMAN: Yeah. Well, I first learned to play the tune from Miles Davis' version and then later from Sonny Rollins' version.

YDSTIE: And that's why you chose it.

Mr. REDMAN: Yes. And also because it's, I think, the first song that I ever wrote or arranged specifically with trio in mind. So it's kind of been in the book, you know, in the repertoire for a long time. So I figured I got to get out there at some point.

YDSTIE: And it's the same arrangement?

Mr. REDMAN: It's actually evolved quite a bit. Now it goes through different key signatures, every eight bars and much of it, except the (unintelligible). So, you know, "The Surrey" started out as like a covered wagon, and then like my version was, like, this, kind of, like, souped up, turbo-charged surrey. But then, now, like, I guess, you know, we've got to be ecologically conscious now. So this is the hybrid surrey.

YDSTIE: Well, let's hear it.

(Soundbite of song, "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top")

YDSTIE: That's saxophonist Josh Redman's arrangement of the "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top." Our bassist is Larry Grenadier, and on drums, Ali Jackson.

Do you like the process of recording an album? Some jazz players say, you know, it's just too confining to go into the studio and have to work…

Mr. REDMAN: Sure.

YDSTIE: …in this context.

Mr. REDMAN: I love it. Yeah, because it's a chance to play the music that you're playing in a very, very focused way. I mean, don't get me wrong, there's nothing can substitute for a live performance. And, really, in jazz, I think it's a live performance where the music really becomes complete because it's a music of improvisation, of spontaneity, you're in the moment, you're interacting with other musicians, with the audience.

But when you make a record, it's a chance to really focus on the subtleties and the details. And, you know, a lot of great music can be made in a studio that can't be made live. It's different but - I think of a record like Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue," one of the great jazz records of all time. That album would not have sounded the same, and it wouldn't have the impact that it had had it been done live.

YDSTIE: Your father, Dewey Redman, plays tenor sax with you on "India" on the album but he died before this album came out. He had a surprise for you, though, "GJ." Tell us about that tune.

Mr. REDMAN: Yeah. Well, originally, dad and I were only supposed to play one tune together. And in fact, we did only play one tune together. We played "India." And it went pretty well, we did a few takes, and we're both were pretty happy with it. And I was, like, okay, time to move on. Thanks for coming in, dad.

And he was, like, well, you know, I'd like to do something else. So I said, great, what do you want to play? And he said, well, actually, I want to play something without you. So I said, hmm, this is my session and my record. This is also my father, and it's the great Dewey Redman. So I said, okay, well, you know, I'll go out and get a coffee, and I came back, and you know, he was packing up.

(Soundbite of song "GJ")

Mr. REDMAN: And I said how did it go? He said, great, one take. And I didn't even listened to it at that time because we were, kind of, running behind. The session had to move forward, but he said, you know, the name of the song is "GJ." It stands for grandson Jaden. Jaden is my son's name. And he was born in February of 2006. We recorded in May of 2006. And my father had met him one time in April, and it turned that it was the only time my father had met him.

My father intended the song as a gift to Jaden, to his grandson Jaden. You know, originally, I wasn't necessarily planning to put it on the album, beautiful as it was, but after my father passed away, it just - it seemed like the right thing to do.

(Soundbite of "GJ")

Mr. REDMAN: It is a beautiful, soulful, like his music. And my father is one of the most soulful musicians ever. I mean, he taught me about soul, and I hope, you know, someday to have 100th of the soul and wisdom in my sound that he has in his.

YDSTIE: You're going to play "East of the Sun (And West of the Moon)." What made you choose this tune for the album?

Mr. REDMAN: Well, like I said, originally, when I started doing this project, I had no concept, but after the Rollins material, then this whole theme, this concept of great saxophone influences entered into the picture. And so "East of the Sun (And West of the Moon)," even though Stan Getz didn't write it, it's a song I really associate with him.

(Soundbite of song, "East of the Sun (And West of the Moon)")

YDSTIE: You've expressed some uneasiness over the fact that some people have called your music accessible. You suggest it as both a blessing and a curse because that suggestion must be compromising or conforming in some way.

Mr. REDMAN: Right. Right. Yeah. I don't have any problem if my music is accessible. The problem I have is if people think that I'm trying to create my music so bad, it is accessible because that's never been the case. For me, a music like jazz isn't first and foremost about entertainment. I'm happy if people are entertained. I'm happy if there's something in my music that people respond to, and at various times, I think that there has been.

But the great responsibility that I feel and that I've always felt as a jazz musician has been to try to play music that's honest, that's creative, that's in the moment, that's expressive of what I'm feeling and thinking right now. And so it's important for me that people understand that.

YDSTIE: Joshua Redman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. REDMAN: Thank you. It's been a great pleasure.

YDSTIE: Joshua Redman's new release is "Back East." He performed for us with bass player Larry Grenadier and Ali Jackson on drums. Our piece was recorded by Rob Bayers(ph) and Daniel Schuken(ph). There's more from Josh Redman on our Web site,

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon returns next week. I'm John Ydstie.

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