Joshua Redman Old and New Dreams Quartet @ Manchester Jazz Festival

Joshua Redman Old and New Dreams Quartet, Manchester Jazz Festival, RNCM, Friday 4 August 2017

As the final week of the 2017 Manchester Jazz Festival drew to a close, one of the most eagerly anticipated concerts was that of a new Joshua Redman formation, devoted to the reunion recordings and concerts of the collective known as the Old and New Dreams Quartet. This was a grouping of Ornette Coleman alumni who performed with that leader back in the 1960s and 1970s and retrospectively wished to revisit some of that innovative and groundbreaking music. Among those musicians was one Dewey Redman, tenorist and father of Joshua. The original Old and New Dreams Quartet were founded in 1976 and recorded their first album for Black Saint that same year. The slightly more famous ECM second album, ‘Free Bop’, was recorded two years later and included a major and lengthy reworking of one of Coleman’s most loved compositions, ‘Lonely Woman’. Two further live recordings surfaced on the two aforementioned labels before the group disbanded in 1987.

However, this new incarnation of the Old and New Dreams Quartet with an entirely separate line-up of musicians from a different era altogether was no mere revivalist concert in the mode of the neo-bop movement of the 1990s and this was illustrated by the performing of new originals in a similar style such as ‘Blues for Charlie’. Rather, it was an exploration of the piano-less sounds that Ornette Coleman had initially envisaged, freeing up the rhythm section, on the one hand, and enabling the two brass players to play off one another and express themselves in tandem.

The leader, Joshua Redman, is a tenor saxophonist, now in his mid-forties, who came to prominence as one of the young Turks of the 1990s, signed to a major at the time in Warner, and whose early-mid 1990s quartet proved to be something of a super group of young and prodigiously talented musicians. These included pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Brian Blade. All have subsequently become leaders in their own right, but it is Blade who has continued to be the long-time collaborator of Redman and as thus he who is the one umbilical chord that connects the young and present day leader.

Photo Credit: Jay Blakesberg

What is interesting is that while Joshua Redman is the son of Dewey, nothing automatically predestined him to become a musician and indeed he enjoyed a highly successful early academic career, studying social sciences at Harvard University. However, parallel to this, Redman had been curious about music more generally, having grown up in a modest single parent household with his mother who had a healthy interest in both the history of jazz and in exploring world roots music. Thus Redman grew up with a highly inquisitive mind and this has served him well when he finally decided upon a full-time career as a jazz musician. While learning his craft, Redman has performed alongside some of the greats including being a member of the Elvin Jones Group, recording a wonderful tenor legacy album on Blue Note with Joe Lovano, and completing a tenure with his father’s band. As a result, Joshua Redman has soaked up some of the historical antecedents of the evolution of the tenor saxophone and has been only too eager to share these acquired experiences with a wider public. The audience in the RNCM auditorium lapped this up and were at once the most eager of students and disciples of the craft.

Visually, the band was set up on stage with the rhythm section in the middle and comprising double bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade, with the horns on either side of the stage, Joshua Redman to the left on tenor, and cornet player, Ron Miles, to the right of stage. Redman is in fact that most photogenic of musicians and a silhouette of him against the left-hand side wall conjured up images of the classic 1950s. Moreover, that classic era was further showcased by the ‘battles’ that the two horn players engaged in. This was akin to the ‘cutting edge’ contests that horn players would participate in back in the 1950s, both to measure up to one another, but equally, in the case of those who were sufficiently confident about their own ability, to play off other reed musicians and complement one another’s performance and style. Redman revelled in squawking his tenor and gyrating his body, legs in particular, into all manner of positions, and this was the kind of ‘hootin’ and tootin’ approach that saxophonists with an R & B background such as Earl Bostic, Illinois Jacquet and others might have engaged in on stage.

This was indeed the seeming intention of Redman and Miles, and it made the evening’s music all the more enjoyable. Redman is a disciple of the Sonny Rollins school of the tenor saxophone, but has clearly taken on the work of Joe Henderson. Ron Miles, the youngest member of the quartet, sounded to begin with like a composite of Art Farmer and Booker Little, but as the evening progressed his tone, although on cornet throughout, evoked that of mid-late 1950s Miles Davis with a beautiful clarity of tone, and together Redman and Miles traded some wonderful licks. A variation in tempi meant that the reed players sometimes caressed their instruments on the gentler numbers and this was a revelation for freer improvisation is invariably regarded as aggressive and uptempo whereas Redman and Miles proved exactly the opposite. Even if at regular intervals the music veered into post-bop and free jazz territory, it at all times remained melodic, and had the ability to return to a clearly defined structure after an extended excursion into spontaneous conversation.

As for the rhythm section, the ever inventive percussion of Brian Blade meant that the listener was always on the tips of their toes wondering what new beat he might dish up, while the sure and steady bass lines of Colley kept the group as a whole in order, though he was always willing to go off on a tangent. In particular, it was refreshing to hear this seldom performed music and what made the evening extra special was that the quartet incorporated their own compositions into the performance as well as re-interpreting some of the most memorable pieces that the original quartet of Ed Blackwell, Charlie Haden, Don Cherry and Dewey Redman had performed back in the 1970s. Another pleasing aspect was how well received the music was. It was as if the entire modern jazz coterie of devotees in the north of England has descended upon Manchester for the evening’s entertainment, and this writer has encountered few audiences as genuinely passionate about and appreciative of this music, and this came as a most pleasant surprise.

The official end to the evening’s performance proved to be a lengthy medley of the perennial Charlie Haden favourite composition ‘Song for Ché’, and in Redman’s own words, “Something else”. A gentle bass solo intro led into some Spanish-tinged cornet playing by Miles with hypnotic percussion served up by Blade. Redman then took on a repetitive riff with the faintest hint of a Latino undercurrent and engaged in a horn conversation with Miles. Wild and rapturous applause ensured, the audience receptive to the interpretation of a Haden piece that over the years has taken on added socio-political meaning. Quite fittingly, the band were treated to a standing ovation and naturally an encore beckoned and for once Redman seemed not to know what to follow up with, exclaiming:

‘You stumped us. No rapping requests!’ A moment’s hesitation before one member of the audience in jest requested an Oasis tune. Instead, a Coleman number emphasizing the blues-inflected inspirations that the late tenorist regularly drew upon from his Texan roots and the audience was treated to a lyrical, if sparse, interpretation to leave the evening’s entertainment on a reposing, yet deeply satisfying tone. Concerts like this rarely meet up to their lofty expectations and so it was an evening to saviour all the more keenly.

Tim Stenhouse