Interview: Joshua Redman

Joshua Redman arrived on the modern jazz scene seemingly out of nowhere. Although his father is respected saxophonist Dewey Redman, and although he had played in his Berkeley, California high school Jazz Ensemble, Redman had entertained no real visions of a musical career. He graduated from Harvard with a degree in Social Studies in 1991, and was preparing to start his first semester at Yale Law School. Taking what was supposed to be a temporary detour to Brooklyn after his Harvard graduation, Redman began playing in New York’s thriving and competitive jazz scene. After gigging regularly for only five months, he took First Place in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition. He then signed to Warner Brothers, and earned a Grammy nomination for his first album.

Redman is a world-renowned musician. He is widely regarded as a powerful and versatile saxophonist who is  comfortable leading a jazz trio or quartet, working with rock-based electric jam bands (Umphrey’s McGee) or performing and recording with some of the most prestigious musicians in Jazz (Chick Corea, Elvin Jones, Pat Metheny, Joe Lovano.)

Redman released Trios Live in June of this year. It’s a collection of songs recorded at the Jazz Standard in New York and Blues Alley in Washington, D.C. We caught up with him during his recent run at Blues Alley, where he performed with Greg Hutchinson on drums and Reuben Rogers on bass.

CG: As someone who didn’t study music when you went to college, do you feel that Jazz Studies programs in academia have had an impact on jazz in the real world? Do you find yourself playing with a lot of kids who have made the transition from a university jazz program into regular gigging and recording?

JR: I would say the vast majority of professional jazz players these days have spent some time in a university or college music program, and exceptions are becoming fewer and farther in between. And that was also true in my generation. When I moved to New York in 1991, I would say that 90% of the musicians that were on the scene and started to gig were coming out of college programs, and most of them had finished all four years. Since then, the percentage has only gone up. It’s almost impossible to find a younger musician who hasn’t gone to music school.

I think jazz education has become a central part in the ecology of the jazz world. It’s done incredible things in terms of the speed in which information and technique is passed on. The younger musicians seem to get better and better with harmony and technique, and I think jazz education has a lot to do with it.  But with all that being said, I think it’s important for jazz musicians to have experience playing their music and communicating their music with people outside of the dedicated jazz community, and especially outside of the academic jazz community. I think oftentimes the only experience young musicians have is playing for other music students, or playing for their teachers.

CG: Especially considering that clubs dedicated to jazz are a little harder to come by these days.

JR: Right, they’re harder to come by, and it’s also a lot harder to get gigs. I mean, look at Blues Alley. It’s a fantastic club, and it’s one of the few jazz clubs still around that offers multi-night runs to artists. But my sense of it is that the percentage of acoustic or semi-acoustic jazz on their calendar is not as high as it was when I started out. 

There are fewer gigs and fewer opportunities for young musicians, and I think there’s a bit of danger there. It shouldn’t be jazz musicians just playing for other jazz musicians. I often hear great young players, but sometimes it feels like something’s missing, and I think it’s probably that experience in front of an audience.  I was fortunate when I came up, and so were a lot of the other guys in my generation, because we had the opportunity to gig a fair amount, both with our peers and with older musicians. And we had the opportunity to play for people night after night, people who were actual paying customers and not just jazz musicians.

CG: Prior to beginning your life in Jazz, you had been accepted to Yale Law School. Most parents would probably be appalled at the idea of their son turning down Yale Law School to play jazz, but your father is Dewey Redman, who had a significant career as a jazz saxophonist. What was your father’s reaction to putting law school on hold?

JR: I think his first reaction was “Are you crazy?”  You know, he had made a similar choice in his life. He had been a school teacher, which was a more settled and secure life, and he chose to leave that behind and move to San Francisco to play jazz. And he was in his late twenties or early thirties, which is a bit late in life to decide to dedicate yourself to music. So I’m sure he empathized with my decision, but for all the acclaim and respect that he had amongst his peers, he struggled throughout much of his life to play the music that he wanted to play, and he struggled to make a living at it. So I think he realized as much as anybody the challenges that face a dedicated jazz musician of integrity.

But you have to understand, I didn’t grow up with my father. I didn’t really know him that well until I moved to New York.  His advice to me was “Go to law school,” but I didn’t have the relationship with him where I was likely to take much of his advice. And I say that with the utmost respect, but he wasn’t really a father figure to me.  My mother, on the other hand, was a very artistic person. She was a dancer, and a lover of music, so while she supported my academic career, she had no problem with me pursuing a career in music. I think she was very happy about that.

CG: When you were planning on going to Yale Law School, what type of law were you planning on studying?

JR: I was interested in either civil rights law or constitutional law. But really, who knows how it would have turned out? Let’s face it, a lot of students enter law school thinking they’ll change the world, and they end up preserving and protecting corporations.  And I’ve got no problem with corporations; they help the world go ‘round.  But when I was planning on going, I think the cost of the education was tens of thousands of dollars, and now people come out of law school with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, so it’s hard to turn down a gig that pays well. I’d like to think I would have been one of those to resist the big corporate gig, but who knows?

CG: How much formal music study did you have when you were growing up?

JR: I didn’t really have any formal training. I had some clarinet lessons in the fourth or fifth grade, but I didn’t really have any saxophone lessons. I studied by playing with other musicians, and talking to other musicians, and listening to records. I think having a great teacher is really important to a musician’s development, but in a form of music like jazz, the lessons to be learned are out there, whether they are out there on recordings, or whether they are out there through actual experience.

CG: What’s your current horn set-up?

JR: I play a vintage Selma Super Balanced Action saxophone, and I play vintage Otto Link mouthpieces, usually the 7 or 7* size.  And I play reeds that are medium hard. I’ve gone through different horns and different mouthpieces and different reeds, but my essential set up has remained the same.

CG: Do you do a lot of experimenting with horn, reed, and mouthpiece combinations?  Do you find that some combinations work for different requirements or do you stick to one set up?

JR: I definitely don’t change my set up. I sometimes wish I could, because when you play with an acoustic jazz group it’s a lot different than playing with a rock band. If I wanted to play more classical music, I would definitely have to change my set up. But I’m not really good with that. I’m at a point where I’m really comfortable with how the whole instrument resonates and responds, and I can’t really switch around. Maybe if I practice switching around, I would get good at it, but I’ve played essentially the same set up for the last 15 years.

CG: You did a great cover of Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean” on your new album. Was that a spur of the moment decision to play that song or was it something that you had worked out earlier?

We came up with an arrangement for it. In fact, I arranged that song with the help of Matt Penman, who played bass on the tracks on the new album that we recorded in New York. That song is one that I really dug. It’s off one of my favorite Led Zeppelin records, and I was really into Led Zeppelin when I was younger, in Junior High.

CG: Sure. Everybody was.

They were one of those rock bands that I was into that really stood the test of time.  A lot of Led Zeppelin songs can get pretty complex rhythmically, and “The Ocean” is one of them. Parts of it are in 8, and parts of it are in 7, and that element appealed to my geeky jazz sensibilities. Jazz musicians usually like to play with rhythms and time signatures. But I also really liked the groove, and I felt like it was a song that could work in a jazz context.  I never really found the right context until recently. One day we were on the road, and “The Ocean” came on, and I thought, “Man, I’d really love to do a version of that,” and I had the basic idea of putting it in a different key, and then doing it faster.  And then Matt and I started playing it and working with it, and it came together fairly quickly. But I think a lot of the success of the arrangement initially had to do with who was in the trio. I mean, Greg Hutchinson  knows the jazz tradition in and out, but he’s also a funk and rock and pop music fiend. He knows everything. And he loves John Bonham. So he had this intuitive sense of what kind of groove to put on it, and Matt has this great driving pulse, so it really worked. And I think because I was on the road with those guys, and because they were receptive to it, it came together quickly. Out of all of the non-standard “covers” that I’ve done, meaning songs that aren’t traditional jazz standards, “The Ocean” is one that I’m the most satisfied with the way it turned out.

CG: Do you tend to view the saxophone primarily as a jazz instrument? Are you able to appreciate its use in rock music or ska? What do you think of bands that have the sax as a featured instrument, like Morphine? Or the English Beat?

JR: Yeah, Morphine was a cool band. I really dug the fact that the guy played baritone sax, and that they were a sax based band. And the English Beat, you know, when I was growing up in Berkeley, I came of age with them. They were a huge band in Berkeley, California. I actually went to an English Beat Concert at the Greek Theater there when I was a kid. When I was in high school, ska was in, and of course the sax was present in reggae as well. I think the sax made it’s appearances in popular music throughout the 70’s and 80’s in various forms. And there were some great jazz saxophone players making appearances on funk or rock and roll records. I remember Michael Brecker playing some incredible solos on a Cameo record, and he was just burning. And the Stones had Sonny Rollins play on “Waiting on a Friend.”  So the saxophone was making some inroads as a featured instrument and not just as part of the horn section.  And then, beginning in the 90’s, it started to have less presence, and it certainly didn’t have any presence with, say, grunge. And then it really stopped being used. There were exceptions, I mean, Branford played with Sting. But then the super poppy stuff that came later used electronic production, and then the new rock music that developed, where people were using real instruments, they seemed more interested in the piano. Like Radiohead, or the Brit Pop stuff, they used mostly piano if they were going to use an acoustic instrument at all. And the sax took a back seat. You don’t really hear it now, really ever. The saxophone is my instrument, and I can absolutely appreciate it outside of just jazz, but its use outside of jazz has really declined. But, you know, it is what it is. And how I feel about pop or rock music doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not there’s a saxophone in it. I mean, like I was saying, I loved the English Beat, and I was glad there was saxophone in it, but that guy wasn’t really a great sax player, and it wasn’t a great sax sound, and I didn’t love his solos, but it really worked for the music. The sax had its day in the pop music limelight, and maybe it will again, and maybe it won’t. But it’s my instrument, and it’s my voice.

CG: How did you get hooked up with Umprhey’s McGee? Do you have any plans to play with them again?

JR: Well, there was this band that I had called the Elastic Band, and when we were touring early on, we would try to play venues that weren’t typical jazz venues. And we played one place in Chicago, and there was this duo that played before us, and it turned out they were Jake Cinninger and Joel Cummings from Umphrey’s McGee. I was really impressed with their music and their musicianship, so I came up to them afterward and started talking to them, and they told me about their band. And I had heard of the band, because there is a healthy relationship between the jam band scene and jazz. Joel sent me some stuff, and he said “Man, we’d love it if you want to come and play with us sometime.”  And I ended up going on the road with the band. The first tour with them was a four day run, and we were traveling around in a van.

CG: Yeah, jam band travel is a different animal.

JR: Absolutely. But now those guys are big time. They travel around in tour buses, but at the time they were just grinding it out. I remember listening to that music for the first time and thinking “Man, that’s hard as shit.” And there were no charts, so I had to memorize it, and learn to play it by ear. They’re playing interesting and ambitious music, and some of it is very technical and very precise, but there’s a lot of room for jamming and improvisation. They’re a great band, and I’ve had a blast playing with them on and off over the years. I have some dates lined up with them in January, I think at the Beacon in New York.

CG: Has anyone ever approached you to do any composing for film or television?

JR: I got some offers, but I turned them down, and I feel like I turned them down for the right reasons.  I came on the scene fairly quickly, so my name was on a lot of different radars.

CG: You were the hot kid all of a sudden.

JR: Right, and it was also a time where jazz was hot music, relatively speaking. So I got some offers, but turned them down. Quite frankly, I didn’t feel that I had the skills. Composing for film is a very serious craft, and at the time I didn’t feel like I had it together as a composer. I also felt like I didn’t really have the ability to write music for film instead of writing music for music’s sake.  You’re basically writing not really songs, but music that augments a film, or music that tells a non-musical story. And I didn’t think I was there yet. But you know, in hindsight, I slightly regret it, because it’s so hard to break into that world. I know a lot of musicians who are eminently qualified, even overqualified, and they’ve been trying for years to do that, and they still haven’t been given a chance. So I suppose the reason I have that little bit of regret is because now I feel like I’m in a place where maybe I could do it, and it makes me wish I had taken those opportunities when they were there.  But there’s still part of me that isn’t sure that I could a good job. And I also know that there’s a lot of pressure and a lot of time constraints associated with that line of work, and I don’t work very well under those conditions. Well, not compositionally, anyway. But I love playing live music, and I love traveling around the world playing jazz for people. And even though the road is getting harder and harder, and I’m getting more and more burnt the older I get, it’s still what I love to do.

CG: Do you think digital recording software that allows for manipulation of sound has a place in jazz recording? Do you think it would be dishonest as a jazz musician to use Pro Tools to clean up a take? Is there a way to use such software in a way that’s in keeping with the concept of Jazz as live music based on improvisation?

JR: Every musician has a different relationship with studio recording, and every jazz musician has a different ethical center as far as the use of Pro Tools is concerned. I’ve been around musicians who have really extreme viewpoints about it. There are guys who are like, “You can only do complete takes, and no editing,” and there’s basically one take for every dude in the band, and whatever happens, happens. But there are other guys who are really intrusive with it, where they replay solos over and over again, and use the software to do correct bad notes in the solos. And honestly, both of those extremes are way out of my range. You can’t replicate the live jazz performance in the studio, so what I do is use the intimacy of that environment, as well as some of the tools of that environment, and that includes the recording software. For me, it all depends on the project. If I’m going into the studio with an acoustic trio or quartet, the most I’ll use digital software for is editing. I can edit on Pro Tools. It isn’t pretty, but I can do it. I’ve done some editing on the last five or six of my albums, so I’ve got no problem using it for that. Like, if we have a great take and we mess up the ending, and I want to use an ending from a different take, or if there’s a great piano solo from one take that I want to use in another, I don’t see anything wrong with that. But if you get into manipulation of the actual improvisational content, that’s when it gets dicey for me. Look, if you have something, and it sounds good and it still has that immediacy of improvisation, or the risk and surprise of improvisation, getting too obsessive with the software can strip the life out of it. And I’ve heard a few musicians, who shall remain nameless, who have done that on more than a few occasions. On the other hand, for a band like the Elastic Band, or a band like James Farm, we’ve used the studio much more. We’ll layer and do overdubs, but that’s because the style is more song-based, and while there is improvisation, song structure is more important. So use of digital software is more of a sliding scale for me, and it’s based on the type of project and the sort of music that’s being recorded.