The dynamic top-tier pairing of Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman are seeking to elevate the status of the piano and sax formation with their new album on Nonesuch, Nearness. Ahead of their headline appearance at this year’s EFG London Jazz festival on November 12, Selwyn Harris spoke to them about their profitable partnerships and the relative paucity of high-profile precursors to their own designs on the duet
For whatever reasons, the piano-sax duo is one of the more unusual of what could be considered conventional jazz line-ups. It’s a setting that hasn’t had the same watershed moments or been talked about with anything like the same gravitas as the solo, trio, quartet, quintet format and so on. Of more recent contemporary recordings though, Marc Copland-Greg Osby, Lee Konitz-Dan Tepfer and Vijay Iyer-Rudresh Mahanthappa are notable pairings that have revealed the format’s potential for a freewheeling, intimate, one-on-one dialogue cut through with an intensity that can more than match any of the other more ‘classic’ settings. Add the new Brad Mehldau-Joshua Redman recording to that list. Their outstanding new release Nearness on Nonesuch is their first recording as a duo and captures the very essence of these values.
“My observation would be that there aren’t as many duos as there are trios, quartets, etc in any instrumentation,” says Mehldau. “I’m not sure why that is. Duo implies the opportunity for a direct confrontation with the other player, but there are also ways to make it more conventional of course, as with any instrumentation. Perhaps that directness is a put off for musicians. For me it’s what’s so fun and exciting. I’m not saying I’m a master at it at all; on the contrary, playing duo with an inspiring musician like Josh makes me feel less self-assured in the best sense of the word. I really value those musical situations where I am challenged, and this is one of them.”
Mehldau’s other musical half Joshua Redman, also considers the lack of role models in the duo setting. “It’s an interesting question and one that I’ve never thought of before,” says the tenor-soprano saxophonist on the line from LA, as inquisitive in conversation as he is improvising. “I’ve heard Herbie and Wayne play duo together and they sound amazing, Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron, but I would say not so much in the sense that there are so many touchstones as for a quartet or quintet, groups historically that have had huge influence and impact. With the duo it’s more just that the models are the great jazz improvisers that we’ve listened to. And it sounds a little strange but I think our duo thing was already established. All the pieces were already there from the lifetime of music making we’d had that preceded that together. In a way we were doing what we’ve always done, but maybe just without bass and drums. It felt very familiar and very natural from the first gig. That surprised me a little bit. Oh yeah, I’m playing with Brad and we’re doing what we do, but this time it’s just the two of us.”
The musical bromance between Redman and Mehldau has passed every endurance test since their first meeting in the early 1990s. That was when Mehldau got his first big break in Redman’s quartet touring and recording on the sax man’s 1994 Warner Bros album MoodSwing. The saxophonist, who’s the son of Dewey Redman – a former protagonist of a more avant-garde strain of jazz tenor – was one of the highly-gifted young generation of jazz musicians at the time riding the wave of a mainstream jazz renaissance. By his early twenties he’d already been nominated for a Grammy, won the prestigious Thelonious Monk Competition and copped a record deal with Warner Bros.
“It was by far the best gig I had ever had up until that point in my lifetime,” says Mehldau. “I had been gigging around New York and had some other road gigs since I was 18, and I think I started playing with Josh when I was 24. It was, needless to say, very exciting for me. I felt like I had won a lottery, getting that gig! It was a real happy moment in my life. Josh called me to play two nights at the Village Vanguard – he had a week there – to see how it would go. That in itself was daunting, to be playing in that room. I passed the test and he asked me to be a part of the band. Big event for me, for sure.”
“I first met Brad and played with him shortly after I had moved to New York and he was God to me,” says Redman. “He was light years ahead of everyone else. He already had his own sound and identity. He was already clearly one of a kind, a one in a generation musician. He was in my band for a short period of time, but a very formative period. Then he started to do his own thing and we reconnected on another record I did called Timeless Tales in 1997 or so for a period of time.”
With new family commitments, managing their separate high-flying careers as well as living on different coasts, playing together became less of a regular occurrence. Even so they were still bumping into each other on the road and at the odd jam session. The tables had meanwhile turned. Mehldau’s star was the one in the ascendant; to many minds he’d become the most important new jazz pianist on the planet.
“For one thing, I would go to hear him play whenever,” says Redman. “At that time I had moved to New York and was living there up until 2002. So whenever he was in town, like playing with his trio at the Vanguard, I would always go down, often multiple nights because I’m one of the biggest Brad Mehldau fans and we’d always run into each other on tour. We did some double bills together too, his trio and my quartet. We were always in touch musically and I was always aware of what he was doing and listening to his latest records, so even though we’ve gone long periods of not playing together I’ve always felt in a very good way, very familiar with him musically.”
Their next notable musical exchange occurred in 2008 when they performed as a duo for the first time. Redman’s key appearance on Mehldau’s Highway Rider (2010) and Mehldau’s on Redman’s sax-and-strings Walking Shadows (2013) gave them the opportunity to cross musical paths again. But both longed for the kind of profoundly intimate experience they’d discovered as a duo. “Josh and I made a few duo performances together first, without much thought of where it would go, just to explore,” says Mehldau. “We had a really nice one as a part of a residency I did at the wonderful Wigmore Hall in London. We both felt strongly about that gig immediately; it felt like there was potential to grow. So we looked for more gigs. Indeed, what was appealing about the duo setting was how unhinged it felt in comparison to the two recording projects you mention, which were, relatively speaking, planned out affairs.”
“I didn’t know if I was ready to play duo with Brad Mehldau,” says Redman, with genuine modesty. “My question was about whether he even needed me. He’s one of the greatest solo pianists playing today, arguably of all time, so what am I going to add to the conversation? But, in a way, what I discovered was what I already knew, that exactly what I did add was myself to the conversation and that is one of the things that makes Brad such a great musician. I think one thing we share in common is this embrace of a real communicative conversational ethic. We’ve always had this even when we were playing together in larger configurations. That’s something we both love and it’s a source of our connection and I think it makes the duo situation feel so unique and special, at least for me. I think the challenge for me is to not let that love of interplay and conversation take over the music. We still have to be conscious of the song and trying to tell the story of the song, whatever that is. And to be conscious of architecture and form and organisation of the music so there is structure, there is a sense of purpose and directionality, there is a sense that there’s a larger narrative going on. That’s also something I think we both share, we’re aware that improvisation takes place in a larger context and you can be completely free and in the moment and interactive and conversational, and still be aware of the larger structure and architecture and hopefully serve it. You can have your cake and eat it too.”
In the making of Nearness, Mehldau approached Redman just over a year ago about them listening through some live concert tapes of them in duo. Redman compiled the recording, going through about 20 gigs and finding “special or unique versions of our repertoire”, a mix of bebop, standards and pop-rock tunes. They boiled it down to seven tracks, all of which come from a European tour in November 2011. Mehldau remembers it as “a fruitful series of gigs; we were really in the zone.” It’s highlighted by their elegantly scintillating versions of the bebop standards Charlie Parker/Benny Harris’ ‘Ornithology’ and Thelonious Monk’s ‘In Walked Bud’.
“When I first heard Brad I remember being struck by how much Wynton Kelly he had in his playing and I loved Wynton Kelly,” says Redman. “People don’t hear that now because there are so many layers. His thinking obviously wasn’t as fully developed as it became five years later. But we both loved bebop and we came up at a time when bebop was super important to what young cats were checking out. That music is a shared love for us for sure. So it was natural for us to play bebop tunes on the tour.”
Aside from the standard title theme, all are originals, one of them being Redman’s punning ‘Mehlsancholy’. Says Redman, “It’s a Brad-like tune in the feeling of the harmonic motion and has that beautiful tinge of melancholy which is something that’s at the core of his aesthetic. It reminded me of him and was influenced by him in a way. We’ve always shared musical values, whether in terms of our approach to improvisation or some of the same influences, and the importance of swing, blues and love of interesting popular music of our generation. All those things have been there from the beginning. Even though we grow and mature and change with our different projects, I feel, maybe because I’ve always listened to his music, that we’re changing together and growing together. There’s never been a point when I didn’t feel 100 per cent comfortable playing with Brad. This doesn’t take anything away from other musical relationships, but often when I go a long time without playing with a musician there’ll be an adjustment period. With him it’s never felt like that. It feels like we’re picking up where we left off, but with the added benefit of how many years and notes of making more music and being that more mature and hopefully wiser. At the same time, I’m always on the edge of my toes and it never feels too comfortable. It never feels like we’re just dialling it in, or just coasting. It’s not easy trying to keep up with Brad! But yeah, we both have a very playful spirit and not coming to the bandstand with any agenda. We both really embrace the moment.”
“Josh and I both value listening closely to the other player,” says Mehldau. “It definitely plays into this duo format. Having said that, there is always a counterintuitive possibility: sometimes there are exciting moments of rupture here when one of us just charges forward brazenly, independent of what the other guy is doing. This is interesting to me, this notion of respecting and trusting the other player enough to play something that is, on the face of it, disrespectful. All of these variables on the bandstand are applicable to friendships. Jazz is nothing if not a social music, a music of social interaction.”
Photo: Michael Wilson
Joshua Redman & Brad Mehldau Duo play the Barbican on 12 November as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival
This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing to Jazzwise, visit: www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe