Thursday, April 18, 2024

Next at the Kennedy Center: Joshua Redman, on PBS

Even if you did not follow jazz in the 1990s, you might recognize, or at least have heard Joshua Redman from his musical appearances in Robert Altman’s Kansas City and Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street, two great films with famous American places in their titles. That was also the theme of Redman’s latest album, Where Are We. Each track refers to a specific city or state, often combining several geographically related songs into medleys. Redman performs selections from the album live-in-concert during the latest episode of Next at the Kennedy Center, which premieres tomorrow on PBS.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, the broadcast starts with its strongest performance, an appropriately bluesy rendition of Count Basie and Jimmy Rushing’s “Chicago Blues.” Redman’s quintet (the leader on tenor, Aaron Parks on piano, Brian Blade on drums, Joe Sanders on bass, and vocalist Gabrielle Cavassa) definitely takes down the decibel level compared to the roaring Basie Band, but Parks’ rhythmic comping still gives it a snappy groove.

Inspired by the George Floyd killing, “After Minneapolis (Face Towards Mo[u]rning)” has a Spartan, plaintive vibe that somewhat recalls some of the recordings by Redman’s father, Dewey Redman, a giant of the free jazz movement—and also one of its most accessible artists. There are some beautiful moments, but, somewhat ironically, the “message” sometimes literally gets lost in Cavassa’s breathy delivery, which almost sounds like wordless vocalizations.

“Streets of Philadelphia” and “Hotel California” both have similar tempos, emotional vibes, and themes of alienation. However, they great “enticements” for non-jazz listeners, reinterpreting Springsteen and the Eagles, but in ways their fans can recognize and relate to.

Probably, the other highlight of the one-hour program is the concluding medley, which combines “Stars Fell on Alabama” with Coltrane’s “Alabama,” which he composed following the Alabama church bombing that murdered four little girls. It is considered his only “protest song.” Coltrane’s “Alabama” is complex and challenging, but there is also a lot of “church” in there, which Redman gets at nicely. (Reportedly, Coltrane based it on the cadence of Martin Luther King’s eulogy).

During the interstitial interview segments, Redman explained he wanted to “balance” the “light” of many American-celebrating jazz standards, with some “darkness.” Fair enough, but perhaps he should have also made sure the darkness was balanced with light. It might be a telling counterpoint to observe that in recent years Cuban defector Paquito D’Rivera has performed Nelson Riddle’s
Cross Country Suite, which is indeed a celebration of America. They are both great musicians and they both have valid perspectives.

It would be cool if Rivera had the chance to perform
Cross Country Suite on a future episode. However, Redman is up next and his tenor playing is always worthy of your ears and attention. Recommended for jazz connoisseurs and fans of the Eagles and Springsteen, Next at the Kennedy Center: Joshua Redman, Where Are We airs tomorrow night (4/19) on most PBS stations.