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Joshua Redman charts a new direction with 'Compass'

January 9, 2009 | 11:21 am

The saxophonist calls his two bassists-two drummers album 'definitely an exercise in letting go.'

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A marquee name on the contemporary jazz scene since winning the Thelonious Monk Institute's Jazz Saxophone Competition in 1991, Joshua Redman has played electric, acoustic, rock, funk and just about every musical style fit for a celebrated jazz saxophonist. But before his new album, "Compass," due out this week, Redman had never performed in an acoustic "double-trio" setting, an unconventional, rhythm-heavy configuration where a soloist is backed by two drummers and two bassists.

Redman kept hearing a voice in his head propelling him to give the formation a try, but he wasn't optimistic.

"No joke, when we went into the recording session I thought there was a high probability that none of the double-trio tunes would make the record," said Redman, who called upon frequent collaborators Brian Blade, Larry Grenadier, Reuben Rogers and Gregory Hutchinson for the album. "I thought we wouldn't even end up playing any tunes because it would be so raucous and crazy."

Instead nearly half of the record sprang out of the double-trio format, and they're the album's most striking pieces. Framed by such a complicated web of sound and rhythm, Redman's playing -- always tasteful and technically beautiful -- sounds daring and freshly recharged on tracks such as "Just Like You" and "Little Ditty."

Even outside of the new configuration, "Compass" finds Redman and his band stretching out with flashes of unpredictability and raw emotion. Those traits rose out of Redman opening himself up to a greater emphasis on free playing or improvisation, unmarried to a rhythmic or harmonic structure.

"One thing that doing this record taught me was in a weird way I realized I often have a little bit more of an agenda going into a recording project than I think I have," Redman admitted. "And because I had no experience playing in this format . . . whatever vision there might have been, it just couldn't exist. There was no vision. It was definitely an exercise in letting go on a lot of different levels."

Another product of the double-trio format was a reworking of Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata, the album's brooding centerpiece. Full of dark spaces and sorrow, the song was nearly left off the album in part out of Redman's concern for what listeners might read into his choice to interpret such a classical standard but also what his understated interpretation might say about him.

"There's a lot of aspects to my performance that in the past I would've been like, 'Absolutely not, there's no way this is going on the record. This doesn't show me as a saxophonist in a strong, confident way,' " Redman admits. "But I think it's for precisely those reasons that I felt it was appropriate. There's a certain fragility and vulnerability that comes through. . . ."

--Chris Barton

'COMPASS': Joshua Redman calls the album “definitely an exercise in letting go." Credit: Michael Wilson.

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