Joshua Redman is the most compelling jazz saxophonist out there, and he has been for over two decades now. The Berkeley High School and Harvard University graduate famously turned down Yale Law School to pursue a career as a musician, following in his late father Dewey’s footsteps, and society has greatly benefited from this decision. Redman brings a contemporary sensibility to jazz — exploring funk, pop, and rock through the improvisational form. He makes jazz fun, danceable, and accessible.
Last night I had the pleasure of attending his concert at the new-ish SF Jazz Center (more on the venue later). He played with his trio, including the world-class drummer Gregory Hutchinson and bassist Reuben Rogers. Even though the group lacked a guitar or piano player to fill in the tunes, I didn’t even notice the absence, given how the three musicians filled the space so perfectly.
He opened with a catchy funk-jazz tune called “Floppy Disk,” written by a drummer from a band that opened for the trio at a recent concert in Europe. He joked afterward about how hip the song title was, before quickly qualifying that it was true at least for “anyone over 30.” This selection previewed many of the tunes during the night, which were often covers rather than songs from his impressive roster of compositions.
He launched into “Act Natural” from his new live album of trio songs, trading fours and then ones with the drummer Hutchinson for an exciting grand finale. And then the trio mellowed the evening with the bass-heavy “Ghost” from the 2009 album “Compass.” Rogers really shined with his melodic playing and haunting groove. Redman seemed to have fun on the soprano sax for this one, ending with a series of “ghost-life” riffs like you might hear at a childhood campfire when someone is trying to scare you with eery chants.
The cover songs continued as the band played Chick Corea’s “Windows,” although the band struck me as a bit unrehearsed for this song, with the end coming a little unceremoniously. They then brought the mood back up for a few more covers, including Thelonious Monk’s “Trinkle Tinkle,” a tune Redman recorded for his first CD back in 1993. They also played Sonny Rollins’ “Pent-Up House” with a creative arrangement kept the toes tapping.
The trio featured a ballad from the new live album, “Never Let You Go,” with Redman ending his solo with some circular breathing (where you inhale and exhale at the same time to keep the continuous playing going).
One pleasant surprise from the evening included a cover of Beethoven’s second movement from his 7th Symphony (“He’ll definitely roll over on this one” Redman deadpanned). The trio jazzed the piece up but stayed true to the melancholy marching of the melody.
They left the stage, but after a standing ovation, the group came out for an encore (“Sit down!” Redman joked to laughter). They played a rousing version of “Chill” from his second album “Moodswing.”
Overall, it was a highly entertaining show, with Redman providing humorous commentary throughout. He said one benefit of being a jazz musician is that they don’t have any hits, so they can play “whatever the ‘F’ we want!” And he commented that he was happy to be at the new SF Jazz center, which is the first standalone performance center dedicated to jazz in the country. The building is the brain child of SF Jazz executive director Randall Kline, and it’s truly a remarkable venue, intimate yet sophisticated, with great acoustics.
Redman noted that it’s always a “privilege and honor” to play at SF Jazz, before saying that that’s true for about any gig they get, especially these days “where the pickings are slim” for jazz musicians. Redman is fortunate to have a steady stream of gigs, and I can’t help but think that his energy and contemporary infusion will bring new fans into the fold, benefiting the him and his fellow artists, as well as music-lovers everywhere.