Joshua Redman could easily be a Gap model. Good looks, clear intelligence (not that that's necessary for Gap, just the semblance of it), an easy way with a crowd; yes, he has all these.
And yet, like the ubiquitous store's clothes, there's something bland about him. Since winning the Thelonius Monk International Saxophone Competition in 1991 Redman, whose father Dewey is a renowned player too, has been showered with garlands. These are not totally unwarranted; he has technique and a mastery of style, and he writes pretty good tunes. But he's not there yet.
All of this is obvious from his latest album with his new-ish trio, which has Sam Yahel on keyboards and Brian Blade on drums. I expected, however, that a live performance at the Jazz Café would light the touchpaper to the fire I felt was lacking. Here, with Jeff Ballard replacing Blade, the trio played a series of airtight grooves. Redman signalled the dynamics, ushered in the bridge sections, and allowed Yahel a series of interesting solos. He used a variety of sounds and keyboards, some sections strongly reminiscent of Herbie Hancock's Headhunters-era Rhodes piano, others of Joe Zawinul's fluty keening. The furthest "out" it got was when Yahel and Ballard locked together on some energetic chordal riffs, and I suspect that without the restraining presence of his leader Yahel would have been happy to explore much wilder regions.
But there's nothing wild about Redman. He has a very sweet tone, which works to better effect on soprano sax than tenor. He doesn't seem to have attained the weight to be really convincing on tenor, nor perhaps the life experience required to rasp and roar his way through the funkier sections.
I kept on thinking of Eddie Harris during this gig – perhaps not the most likely influence on a young lion – but Redman has obviously been listening to him a lot. He made regular use of a pedal to add an octave, a fifth or a third to his sax (a Harris trademark) and the way he bent notes was pure Harris, too.
This is no bad thing. Harris was consistently underrated, for which his erratic choice of material was largely to blame, but as a performer of simple riff-based funk he was hard to beat. Harris was different, though; with his dry, percussive laugh, shaven head and mean face, he was the kind of character you would not want to cross. Redman, on the other hand, would probably cross the road to help an old lady with her shopping. He's just too nice to carry off this stuff.
If you were to put together an identikit saxophonist, you could hardly do better than Redman. In that sense, he is perfect. But he's just too perfect at the moment. As the Mingus tune goes, "Better Git it in Your Soul".
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