Branford Marsalis and Joshua Redman, kings of sax

Date: 03.26.2009
Publication: San Jose Mercury News
Author: Andrew Gilbert


From the moment that Joshua Redman made his debut on the national stage, his career has been inextricably linked with Branford Marsalis’, and not just because they’re two of the most visible and commanding tenor saxophonists playing today.

Marsalis served on the panel of judges who awarded Redman first place at the 1991 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, a triumph that persuaded him to give up Yale Law School for a New York jazz apprenticeship with his father, tenor sax great Dewey Redman. In hindsight, Marsalis’ first impression of Redman’s playing is a little vague, clouded by politicking among his fellow judges.

“I didn’t pay attention to Josh to the degree I should have,” says Marsalis, 48, from his home in Durham, N.C. “I remember he was up against Tim Warfield, Chris Potter and Andrew Speight and that the judges were lobbying for their guys. Anyway, I judge musicians in the context of groups, not individuals.”

Marsalis had loomed large as an influence for Redman since his days at Berkeley High. But Redman hadn’t experienced the visceral impact of a Marsalis performance until two days before the Monk Competition, when he caught the saxophonist at the Washington, D.C. club Blues Alley with bassist Bob Hurst and drum legend Roy Haynes.

“It’s still one of the greatest jazz concerts I’ve ever seen,” says Redman, 40. “What really hit home was that Branford is just a pure improviser, completely in the moment. I never get a sense that he’s playing licks. He’s always playing ideas, and there’s this natural flow, this incredible imagination and sense of humor and narrative quality to what he does.”

Over the years, Marsalis and Redman have shared recording studios and stages several times, and their paths intersect again next week when both saxophonists perform in the area. Marsalis plays the Palace of the Fine Arts Theatre on Sunday as part of SFJazz’s Spring Season, and Monday night at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, while Redman opens a five-night run at Yoshi’s on Wednesday with his trio featuring SFJazz Collective bassist Matt Penman and drummer Greg Hutchinson. He’ll also be at Kuumbwa on April 6.

They probably won’t get a chance to perform together, but last year Marsalis joined Redman’s trio as a special guest at Chicago’s Symphony Center. He came away highly impressed by the creative tension generated between Redman and Hutchinson.

“Hutch plays so beautifully, he’s the perfect foil for Josh, because it’s always nice to be able to play with musicians who don’t necessarily think exactly like you,” Marsalis says. “There’s a certain kind of aggression he has playing with Josh. He has this roar.”

It’s telling that even in that first experience at the Monk Competition, Marsalis looked to evaluate Redman in the context of a group. Rejecting romantic notions of jazz innovators as heroic, solitary geniuses, he sees the music as essentially an ensemble endeavor.

Marsalis practices that philosophy in his band with pianist Joey Calderazzo and bassist Eric Revis, which just marked its 10-year milestone with the release of “Metamorphosen” (Marsalis Music), an exceptional CD featuring tunes by every member. While fans of the quartet might be disappointed to hear that Jeff “Tain” Watts, the group’s protean drummer, isn’t participating on this West Coast tour, Marsalis is taking the opportunity to present a remarkable prodigy, Justin Faulkner.

Marsalis first heard the 18-year-old drummer last year while conducting a high school jazz band tutorial in Philadelphia. He’s candid about his distaste for parachuting into situations with underprepared young players, but Marsalis couldn’t refuse a request by his cousin Rodney Mack, the principal trumpeter with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia.

“For the most part I don’t like listening to these high school kids,” Marsalis says. “I tell them, you’re never going to get it if you don’t listen to more music, and they get mad at me.”

Faulkner, however, stood out starkly in a less than stellar big band. “He’s just keeping time,” Marsalis recalls. “But he’s swinging like crazy. He’s been listening to a lot of jazz. Usually when one kid’s way better there’s a level of impatience, but I’m looking at his face and he was focusing on making the music swing, no attitude at all.”

When Watts couldn’t make the tour, Marsalis first tried to recruit several well-traveled drum colleagues. Finding them unavailable he decided to give Faulkner a call. As Redman discovered, Marsalis makes for a loyal and invaluable ally.

“Back in the 1990s, I was playing a weeklong gig Los Angeles and I got a call from the Rolling Stones, who were looking for a tenor player to come play for one song on a show on the East Coast,” Redman says. “I couldn’t turn down the opportunity. Branford was still with ‘The Tonight Show’ and he came and covered my gig for one night.

“It’s not the first or last time he’s gone many extra miles for me.”

Submitted by Josh on March 26th, 2009 — 12:00am

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