In the Groove with Joshua Redman: A Conversation With the Acclaimed Jazz Artist

Posted in News on April 15, 2021 by
Photo: Heidi Zeiger

Born into a creative environment, Joshua Redman always had an affinity for making music. His father, Dewey Redman, was a renowned saxophonist, and his mother, Renee Shedroff, was a dancer. Although he started playing the clarinet in fourth grade and then switched to saxophone, he entered college expecting to become a physician and graduated intending to go to Yale Law School. He decided to defer Yale for a year, opting to join musician friends in Brooklyn, where his career path took a sharp turn. He dove into the New York jazz scene of the early ‘90s and, just months after moving to New York City, won the Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition. Soon, he was gigging and recording with the likes of Elvin Jones, Charlie Haden, Jack DeJohnette, Pat Metheny, and his father.

Thirty years later, Redman has had a long and fruitful artistic career, yet he still approaches the craft with curiosity and gratitude. In early 2020 he reunited with his original quartet — Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride, and Brian Blade — nearly 25 years after the release of their acclaimed album MoodSwing. While the pandemic delayed their plans to tour in support of the GRAMMY-nominated RoundAgain, their long-anticipated follow-up to MoodSwing, Redman has kept busy working on other projects and serving as artistic director for the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Roots, Jazz and American Music program.

BMI caught up with Redman to discuss how he managed his artistic director position during the pandemic, what it was like to reunite with his original quartet 25 years later, and why it’s essential for artists to collaborate.

Last April, you were named Artistic Director of Roots, Jazz, and American Music for the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. How were you able to navigate this new position during the pandemic?

Very treacherously [laughs]. No, it’s been a wonderful opportunity for me to work with SFC and the RJAM program there. I guess my appointment coincided almost perfectly with the pandemic! I should say that my experience with jazz education — or music education in general — is rather limited, especially compared to many of my peers, because I didn’t go to music school, unlike the vast majority of jazz musicians of my generation and younger.

I never really had formal musical training. My training has been listening to records and musicians’ live performances and listening to musicians I play with — on the job, on the gig training. I played in school bands, but I never took theory or harmony classes or had private lessons. It’s a little odd, now that I’ve stepped into jazz education as a teacher, so I’m doing what I’ve always done, which is learning as I go.

The RJAM program is cool; it’s small but growing, and there’s some really talented and dedicated kids. The faculty is fantastic — that’s one of the reasons why I took the gig, because so many of my favorite musicians are teaching there. They have a system called the Dante System by which students can make music together in real time but in separate rooms. So, we’ve been able to have functioning ensembles playing together, and they’re connected through an audio system. Obviously, there’s a really extensive testing protocol there, and if a case is identified, then everything goes online again.

So, it’s been nice that it hasn’t been entirely online, and the students can still make music together in real time. Especially with jazz, you have to do that to learn it. Jazz is a music of the moment, it’s a music of playing together with other musicians in the same space at the same time, improvising. The more we can be physically present, the better. I’m hopeful for the upcoming year.

Speaking of education, you were originally planning to attend Yale Law School after college. How did you decide that you wanted to make music for a living?

I started clarinet in fourth grade and then saxophone in fifth grade. My plan from an early age was not to attend Yale Law School [laughs]. At that age, I probably wanted to be a baseball player … or an astronaut or an archaeologist. But when I went to college, I wanted to be a doctor. By my junior year, I realized that as noble a profession as medicine was, it might not be the right fit for me. It’s not that I wanted to be a lawyer, but I think some of the issues that I was focusing on, I figured it could be good to know the law in order to address those issues. I didn’t decide to apply to law school until my senior year, and I was accepted to Yale.

I had every intention of going, but I asked for a year deferment and I moved to New York because I had met a lot of musicians while I was in Boston who were living in New York. I moved into a house with a bunch of musicians and things just took off for me. Within six months of living there I realized I was able to not only pay my rent — and eat some greasy pizza and Chinese takeout — but I was able to support myself and able to play the music that I love to play with some of the greatest musicians in the world. So, I wanted to check this out for a while, and I guess I’ve been checking it out for the past 30 years.

Your most recent release, RoundAgain, was the second album with your original quartet — Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride and Brian Blade. How was it different this time around, working together nearly 25 years after releasing MoodSwing?

It felt great. They are three of my favorite musicians in the world and three of my greatest inspirations. I feel like I’ve learned as much playing with them as I have from anybody else. I’ve continued to work with each of them over the years, but as a quartet, we only played together from 1993 until the end of ’94. We recorded this one record together. It was a very intense year and a half — a lot of touring — and it was a very formative time for me, and also maybe for them. I was about 25 years old, and they were 23 or 24 years old.

And there was just something; I knew that the band wasn’t going to be able to stay together very long, just because they were so great and in such high demand. They were destined to lead their own projects, which they’ve done. But it was always my dream to get that band back together. It was a dream that I was fairly confident would become a reality. I didn’t think was going to take 25 years, but that’s what it took. We recorded the record and were all set to tour last year, and then those gigs got rescheduled for this year, and now those gigs got rescheduled for next year. So, hopefully next year, we’ll get to tour.

I knew it was going to be inspiring, challenging, and exciting to play with them again, but I wasn’t prepared for how familiar and comfortable it was going to feel. We’ve all changed and evolved so much individually as musicians, but there’s something about the way we play together, the way that we relate to each other in the music. And especially the way we feel the rhythm — the way we relate to the groove together, and the groove that we generate. As soon as we started playing together, I was like, “yeah, that’s what this feels like — this is us.” We have something; there’s some collective self here. So that was cool to feel that familiarity, even after what would have been essentially half of my lifetime — 25 years.

The amazing thing about jazz music is that it affords you the opportunity to have so many different connections with so many different musicians, and so many different combinations of musicians. Jazz is, I think, at its best, a band music — a collective music.

How would you recommend that young artists can build collaborative artistic relationships with other musicians?

I don’t really know that I have any wisdom to impart, but I think that the way you do it is just by doing it. And, by recognizing that it is such an essential part of your musical development and musical growth. Jazz musicians are — myself excluded — notorious for spending hours in the practice room by ourselves. It’s a very demanding, complex language and there’s so much work, woodshedding, and practicing that you need to do on your own.

But, but because of the improvisational nature of it, no matter how much you work on things as an individual, there’s an essential element that can only be understood through making music with others. I think that’s true of all music. But with jazz, you’re usually trying to create some sort of groove. It can incredibly tight, focused, and precise, but part of the magic of that groove is in the way you dance around the beat and always have a sense of where the beat is, but each musician will place themselves in a different position relative to the beat.

So, if there’s any advice, I would say, just continue to seek those opportunities out. I think the one danger that exists today, is that there is such a wealth — even a glut — of incredibly valuable and insightful information about music that can be found online. You can find any recording by anybody at any time, but there’s also a lot of great instructional information and a lot of different ways in which you can learn technical aspects of music. But that engagement can only take you so far, so I think you have to be careful not to go down so many musical rabbit holes through the Internet. You might show up to play with other people and be potentially worse off than when you started because you’re in this individualistic mindset.

You’ve said that your work with The Bad Plus allowed you to explore a part of your musical heritage that you’d never accessed before. Can you share a little more about this experience and how it’s changed your creative process?

I’ve been a fan of The Bad Plus for a long time and loved their music and knew each of them. They are all deeply influenced not only by Ornette Coleman’s music, but also by the music of Keith Jarrett — in particular, his American quartet — of which my father was a part. And my father was also part of Ornette Coleman’s band in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. That kind of vocabulary — that approach to play music — it’s an aspect of what we call “free jazz,” or improvising music that’s not within predetermined song structures. So that way of playing was something that deeply influenced them.

I grew up listening to those records and seeing my father play when he came to town, so that language and that way of playing was an early influence for me. But it wasn’t something that I got to pursue as much, especially coming up as a young musician in Boston and then in New York — it wasn’t a way of playing that was emphasized as much at the time. I got to experience it a little bit playing with my father and also playing with Charlie Haden. But connecting with The Bad Plus was one of the first times that I really got to sink my teeth into that that language a little more, and that was really cool.

What’s the most challenging project you’ve tackled?

I would say the most challenging — this was more than 10 years ago — someone asked me if I would do a saxophone concerto for this new piece of music with an orchestra. That was challenging because it wasn’t about improvising, and it wasn’t about what I’m feeling in the moment. My training is entirely not in classical music, so it’s not that way of playing, but the whole idea of learning the right way to play the piece and having this ideal of perfection. I mean, perfection in jazz, it’s a different sort of perfection. It’s an imperfect perfection that’s contingent on the moment, and on the unpredictability in the messiness of the moment in a beautiful way.

Lately, I’ve been working a lot at home and practicing the Bach Cello Suites on the tenor saxophone, and this idea of being able to play through one movement, let alone a suite, without making a thousand errors, it’s so foreign to me. I’ll never be able to do it, that’s the thing. I think my musical mind is still growing; I feel like I’m still getting better and evolving as a musician, but certain neuropathways aren’t open to me anymore [laughs].

Your first album came out in 1993, and you’ve seen a lot of changes in the music industry over the years. What advice would you give to a young artist starting out?

Play because you love playing. It’s not a wise career choice, but it’s an inspired career choice. It is a profession and you have to learn how to navigate the profession. I don’t know how much real advice or wisdom I could impart as a 52-year-old who came up in a different musical ecosystem and music business ecosystem. I feel like I’m clueless — how do you make a career in music if you’re starting out? I don’t know; y’all got to figure that out for yourselves [laughs].

But I do think that you don’t choose jazz as a career, you choose it as a passion. I think if you’re too focused on career, it can distract you from the real joy and magic of music making. I was very lucky to be able to bypass a lot of stages of professional dues-paying, in a way. I was lucky to have the opportunities that so many musicians more deserving than I didn’t have, and I knew how to make the most of them, I guess. But I think the musicians who are successful long-term aren’t in it to be successful, they’re in it because they love the music and are passionate about it, and they love playing music with other people. I think if you remain committed to that simple basic principle and that fundamental joy, the rest will take care of itself.

How did you start working with BMI and how has it impacted your career?

When I got to New York — or maybe it was before my first record came out — someone told me that I needed an administrator. Someone told me, “Go with BMI, they’re better for jazz musicians.” I don’t deal with that aspect of my career; I’ve had great management, so I can be the business-stupid artist [laughs].


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