Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Freddie Redd’s Reconnection

For seventeen months Freddie Redd led a group that included Jackie McLean playing music he composed for Jack Gelber’s Off-Broadway hit, The Connection. A film version was directed by Shirley Clarke and Blue Note released the music on LP. While Redd is an under-recorded artist deserving wider acclaim, what fame he has derives from the music from The Connection, which he revisited last night in Merkin Hall.

Steve Schwartz, the host for the concert, somewhat whitewashed the subject matter of the play, as a story of chemical addiction. It is a starkly naturalistic portrayal of a crash-pad filled with heroin addicts, being filmed by a documentary crew, as they wait for their drug connection. Some of those hanging out happen to be musicians (played by Redd and his quartet) who periodically rehearse as they cool their heels.

The concert started with Lou Donaldson, who credited the pianist for giving him his first gig in New York, sitting in with Redd and his rhythm section mates, Mickey Bass and Louis Hayes. Donaldson’s alto sounded ageless as he burned through bop standards like “Now’s the Time.” In fact it was almost more of a Donaldson concert, featuring tunes like “Whiskey Drinking Woman,” long a staple of his sets, although Redd himself did get plenty of solo space.

Before the intermission, Redd was briefly interviewed on stage. Perhaps, the most telling exchange started with Schwartz reminding Redd that Gelber’s stage instructions state: “The jazz played is in the tradition of Charlie Parker.” Redd modestly responded to the effect that he always hoped that were true.

The second set was entirely The Connection, with Donald Harrison taking over the alto duties. Hearing the now familiar themes again, it is striking how rich Redd’s compositions are, as they take unexpected twists. While Harrison was somewhat tentative on the opener, “Who Killed Cock Robin,” they would take another shot at it as a sort of encore, in which everyone locked in. Again, there was a bit of a false start on “O.D.” due to confusion with the sheet music and a personnel rotation on bass, although Louis Hayes did his best to cover it with his steady ride. Ultimately it was Redd’s show, and he did not disappoint. He has a muscular, but economical style, and his soloing is bright and compelling, not the least diminished since he first recorded these themes.

Redd now lives in California, so this was a welcome opportunity for him to reconnect with his New York roots. Many prominent musicians and industry figures came out to hear Redd’s return. Thanks to Redd, The Connection has a place of import in jazz history, despite the New York Times panning the original production as “a farrago of dirt, small-time philosophy, empty talk and extended runs of ‘cool music,’” as shrewdly quoted on the back cover of the original Grove Evergreen movie tie-in edition.

It has been produced around the world and the film is often screened at jazz festivals. I screen an excerpt in my jazz survey courses at SCPS. It was definitely a product of its time, but the music is still powerful, as proved again by Redd last night.