Joshua Redman and The Bad Plus – Bad to the Bone

The Bad Plus Joshua Redman

With parallel careers spanning the last two decades saxophonist Joshua Redman and piano trio The Bad Plus have forged equally acclaimed, but distinctly separate paths in contemporary jazz. An opportunity to collaborate in 2011 revealed an unforeseen compatibility and subsequent world tours deepened both musical empathy and personal friendship that’s resulted in the quartet’s explosive debut album, The Bad Plus Joshua Redman. Stuart Nicholson spoke to Redman and Bad Plus bassist Reid Anderson about how this evolving partnership has brought out the best in all of them, especially through the rigours of the road...

For the last two years or so concerts by tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman with the piano trio The Bad Plus have been making the jazz media, promoters and the public sit-up and take notice. Reviews have been effusive – Albany’s Metroland said: “It’s as though Redman is the long lost fourth member of the quartet,” while Los Angeles Times concluded: “The Bad Plus (plus one) roared as if a quartet were always lying just beneath their surface.” Since jumping on the touring circuit following their debut performance at New York’s Blue Note jazz club in 2011, the quartet have finally consummated their relationship on record with the release of The Bad Plus Joshua Redman (Nonesuch). The music is knotty, challenging and explosively satisfying, and succeeds in the tricky task of jumping ahead of pre-release expectation by offering a fresh and original slant on improvised music that delivers on the present, yet, promises much for the future.

The Bad Plus’ repertoire has always had a reputation for making the word eclectic appear narrow and limiting, ranging from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring to covers of hits by the Pixies, Aphex Twin and Nirvana, leavened by a series of originals from pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King that often contain essences from a variety of stylistic sources that are sometimes mischievously referenced. The Bad Plus Joshua Redman is no exception – there’s a fresh look at two Bad Plus staples, ‘Silence is the Question’ from 2003’s These Are The Vistas and ‘Dirty Blonde’ from 2004’s Give, plus seven new originals from the band members including ‘Country Seat’ with its essences of Aaron Copland, ‘The Mending’ with a nod and wink in the direction of Erik Satie while the through-composed (meaning the song unfolds continuously without repeating itself) ‘Beauty Has It Hard’ has the kind of clever/tricky writing we’ve come to associate with Bad Plus with a more-is-more solo from Iverson. All this is achieved against a backdrop of shifting textures, metres and rhythms that has became a part of The Bad Plus’ portfolio of surprises.

What is interesting about this meeting of musical minds is that it seems much more than a let’s-get-together-and-see-what-happens collaboration. Ever since their major label debut in 2003 with These Are The Vistas, The Bad Plus has scrupulously worked towards a specific group identity and only once, in 2009, when vocalist Wendy Lewis joined them on For All I Care, has a fourth voice emerged on one of their recordings (with, it must be said, mixed results). But here Joshua Redman, far from jumping in with his stylistic bag of tricks, has opened up his own creative space within the group that offers much more than a tenor saxophone plus rhythm with an approach that really does sound as if he is the long lost fourth member of the band. This association seems to have grown organically into something more than either party expected following their original collaboration on the Blue Note jazz club stage in 2011.

“It was a special anniversary year at the Blue Note,” explains Bad Plus bassist Reid Anderson. “They wanted something more than just groups, they wanted to have guests and the idea of Josh playing with us came up and we wanted to try it, we’d never played with him. We maybe knew him a little bit, but certainly we had a lot of respect for him as a musician, but we didn’t know him personally. But we had a great week and he seemed to enjoy himself as well, and that was followed by a tour, some dates in the States and touring in Europe in the summer, and we just established a great rapport with one another and wanted to continue it – it just kind of evolved naturally, it just started out as a situation where we didn’t really know where it would go, into something that was a lot of fun for us.” Redman concurs, adding, “it was one of those rare instances that, you know, something that may have not have arisen in the most organic fashion turned out to be artistically serendipitous and something that obviously proved to be a long lasting partnership and something that has been very inspiring for me and hopefully for them as well.”

 

“Being on the road was glamorous for about the first six months, and then the reality sets in!
– Joshua Redman

 

Entering the musical world of an established trio with their own particular style, which in the instance of The Bad Plus has been developed over almost 20 years, has its own unique challenges, which both parties acknowledge. As Anderson observes: “I think that Josh – he will have his own opinion about this – but I suspect what his experience is, is that he can come into this established sound and it is easy to become a part of it, he doesn’t have to come in and be ‘Joshua Redman, bandleader and one of the most famous musicians of our generation’, he can come into this and just completely commit himself to this band sound and become a part of it. For us, we don’t really do a ‘backing band’, so anybody who comes in and plays with us has to deal with The Bad Plus and the people we’ve done it with, I think they’ve enjoyed that.”

Clearly this was the case with Joshua Redman, who came well prepared for the challenge, having memorised several songs from The Bad Plus repertoire for his Blue Note debut with the trio. “Yeah, they are a tightly knit jazz group that has existed in the past 20 years,” he agrees. “Certainly they’re one of the most dedicated jazz groups, and I think their eco system, they have a fairly closed eco-system in terms of how they function as a group and what they do as a group – but obviously they are all incredibly open minded and flexible musicians – really for the most part has existed as ‘The Bad Plus’ and as just ‘The Bad Plus,’ even though they have done other projects. That has been the primary thing they have all been devoted to since the band’s inception. Initially, I basically was a guest with them, so when I played at the Blue Note with them it was entirely their repertoire, I mean they sent me a list of tunes and recordings they had done of those tunes, and basically I learned them and tried to integrate my voice and my sound and my approach into what they did as a band. But I never thought of myself as a ‘guest soloist’, you know? Although that may have been the way it was portrayed initially, it was really important for me, in any project I’m involved in, it is really important for me to find a way to contribute to the collective.”

Perhaps part of the success of this collaboration lies in the way Redman, by immersing himself in Bad Plus’ musical world has re-discovered a long lost part of his musical psyche that has made for his perfect fit with the band: “[Bad Plus are] very influenced by the sorts of jazz I have been influenced by from a very early age, but maybe haven’t had as much of an opportunity to kind of explore those sides of my influence with other groups – I mean, specifically, they have all been influenced by a lot of the music my father [Dewey Redman] was involved in, they’ve been very influenced by Ornette [Coleman] and Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet, and Charlie Haden’s music and Old and New Dreams, these just happen to be groups that my dad was really involved in, and music that I have been listening to for as long as I can remember. So, you know, I feel that playing with them has definitely brought out a side of my musical personality that perhaps I had not explored as much previously.”

You only have to glance at the websites of both The Bad Plus and Joshua Redman to see their often-demanding touring schedules together, a reflection of their musical commitment essayed on The Bad Plus Joshua Redman. Today, touring is a fact of life for the successful jazz musician, but it comes with its own stresses and strains: “Yeah, musicians often find themselves out on the road saying, ‘they didn’t tell us about this in [music] school!’” laughs Reid Anderson. “The hardest thing to do is to walk out of the front door – it’s very intense, it’s a 24-hour-a-day job, and the way we tour it’s often a different country every day travelling, and doing a soundcheck and repeating it day after day. Of course, it can be very rewarding and it’s a job that when you turn up for work people applaud you and tell you how much they like what you do, which is gratifying, but it’s definitely not a situation where you can always exercise choice – if the lobby calls at 5am you gotta be down there at 5am, you have to take two flights and drive for two hours, and do a soundcheck and play the concert, that’s your day and you have to deliver, you have to deliver a good performance, no-one cares how tired you are at the end of the day… Personally, I couldn’t go out there just to play music, go through everything that it takes to do it, you have to be out there playing music you really care about that you can get behind to justify the sacrifice that it takes to do it.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Joshua Redman. For him the romance and glamour of touring the world’s top jazz spots and festivals quickly wore out. “Well, being on the road was glamorous for about the first six months, and then the reality sets in!” he says with a knowing laugh. “You know, it’s not an easy life, and it hasn’t got any easier the older you get, it’s a lot of late nights and very early mornings and a lot of it is long and stressful travel, not that much sleep, or very little sleep. The older you get, you’re not as resilient, it becomes more of a physical drain, physical stress, you don’t recover as well, and also emotionally it can be tough. I have a family at home, got two young children so it’s very hard for me to be gone from them and my wife – you know, you shouldn’t become a professional musician to see the world! Although that is a perk. A lot of what you see of the world is hotels, airports or train stations, and you eat some very good meals along the way! But you know what makes it all worthwhile? Those two hours a night when you step up on the bandstand and you get to make, or try to make, beautiful music with other musicians, and connect with them and to do it for an audience and do it for the people. There’s nothing I’d trade that for in the world. That is an incredible luxury, as hard as life on the road can get, the luxury of being able to play music for people and the connection that can come out of that, and not to sound too ‘touchy-feely’, but a sort of communion that can come out of that, there’s nothing in the world that’s like that feeling. It’s a luxury to be able to do that and make a living doing it.”

Review

The Bad Plus and Joshua Redman – The Bad Plus Joshua Redman ★★★★

The Bad Plus Joshua RedmanNonesuch

Joshua Redman (ts), Ethan Iverson (p), Reid Anderson (b) and Dave King (d). Rec. date not stated

If we were to look at the career trajectories of both Redman and Bad Plus, we would see in the case of Redman an involvement in pianoless groups in more recent times – Back East (2007), Compass (2009) and Trios Live (2014) – and piano ensembles (such as James Farm) interspersed with the jazzwith-strings Walking Shadows (2013). What is perhaps lacking is the creation of an effective and definitive context within which to focus his talents as an improviser: his recent career a series of ‘projects’ rather than the refinement of an overall vision for himself as an artist. In contrast, The Bad Plus have created a context for themselves, a trio sound that is their own, but there has been a feeling since their heady days of hearty deconstructionism following their major label debut with These Are the Vistas, of searching, but not quite finding, a real direction for their music. Thus this collaboration gives much to both parties: to the saxophonist an effective context within which to function as an improviser, and the trio, who seem energised by a sense of direction fresh blood has bought, a driving force that is perhaps the discovery, as contemporaneous press reviews of their live concerts have noted, of the long lost fourth member of the group. As with other Bad Plus albums, there are some insanely intricate passages, but leavened with touches of humour and rock inflected energy from the fine drumming of Dave King. Redman effortlessly fits into this world, but his solos suggest fresh paths to be trodden and fresh horizons to aim for, and with bits of each party rubbing off on the other, the future looks good. – Stuart Nicholson

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This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Jazzwise magazine / Photo by Cameron Wittig & Jay Blakesberg

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