Saxophonist Joshua Redman, whose trio will open Indy Jazz Fest Saturday at Clowes Hall, earned accolades, fame and a major recording contract within two years of going professional, taking first place in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition at age 22, winning a Grammy for his 1993 self-titled debut at age 24. But as he tells NUVO in a phone interview a few weeks before his Indianapolis date, he had to learn how to be a musician on the job, breaking convenient habits only after learning how to practice.
At one time, a different career awaited Redman: He was accepted into Yale Law School, but deferred for a year before abandoning his studies altogether. Yet music was certainly always in his life: His father, saxophonist Dewey Redman, played with, among others, Ornette Coleman; his mother studied South Asian dance; and the younger Redman has played saxophone since age 10.
Redman has become more adventurous with age, playing in fusion settings with the trio Elastic, exploring both Indian sounds and bass-drums-sax trio work by Sonny Rollins on Back East, and, most recently, playing with a double trio (two drummers, two bassists) on his album Compass. He'll only bring along only one of each to Clowes - bassist Matt Penman and drummer Gregory Hutchison.
Redman, who was involved with the San Francisco Jazz Festival, founding that festival's original music ensemble SFJAZZ Collective, says of the Indy Jazz Fest: "I hope the organization can succeed... There is an audience for the music; I think it's just a matter of reaching that audience and getting them to come out."
NUVO: A review on bbc.com described your album Compass as having a "sad and often unsettled core." Does that ring true?
Redman: I think that element is certainly there. I think when I wrote a lot of the music, and even at the time I recorded it, I was going through a... I don't want to say a sad time, but definitely an unsettled time. I was grappling with a lot of things personally, not having to do with what was going on externally in my life - it was a very happy time for me - but I was kind of struggling with some things inside, and so I think there's that unsettled, disoriented quality, a kind of vulnerability, and yeah, maybe even a sadness, a reflectiveness.
NUVO: Just as you're open about your emotions, you're also honest about some of your shortcomings as a musician.
Redman: I'm definitely my own harshest critic. I've always had to be honest with myself as to what I could and, more importantly, what I couldn't do, my failings, because to me, that's always been the engine for growth and for improvement, it's been a motivating force. It also has threatened to be debilitating; if you're overly self-critical, which at different times I was, it can kind of derail you. There were times I thought, well, I should stop playing.
I think I've gotten to a point where I couldn't stop if I wanted to. Laughs. I've gotten to a point where I've gotten that under control, so I think it's more a positive force for me. But yeah, I've never claimed to be a master jazz musician, or even, when I first came on to the scene, I don't think I was a particularly good jazz musician and I wasn't a serious one. There were certain qualities that I had, certain strengths that I had, that I got by on, and certain strengths that I had that probably spoke to people.
NUVO: And because you had such success at such a young age, where did you get the kind of feedback that might impel you to keep growing?
Redman: The feedback was there, all I had to do was just listen. Not listen to what people were saying, but listen to music. Listen to great musicians I was playing with, listen to the great recordings that were out there, both contemporary and historical, recordings from every period in the history of jazz. All I had to do was listen to this great music around me, and then listen to myself, and realize how much I had to learn.
One other thing, in terms of getting to place where I felt comfortable with practicing: For a long time I feel like I led a dual life. I was a serious and disciplined person, but that went into academics, that went into studying things other than music. For a long time, music was just this big escape for me, something where I just kind of allowed my instincts to take over, where I could be free and just focus on feeling, as opposed to analysis. For me, for a long time, music was just play, serious play, but just play, not something that I worked on methodically for a long time.
And with that sense of having a dual life - an intellectual life that was focused on school, and an emotional life that was focused on music - I think I was, in a certain sense, fearful of bringing my analytical, more intellectual, more disciplined faculties, that side of my personality, to music. Somehow I felt music was more pure if I kept that stuff out of it. And I think over time, I've learned to reconcile the two.
So after 10 or so years of playing music seriously, I was at the point that I could start to bring that rigorous, analytical side to music, and that's when I started to feel more comfortable with working on things and practicing.
NUVO: And I think it's interesting that your research and analysis of music isn't necessarily with pencil and paper, like with traditional transcription. A lot of it is in your head or on the fly.
Redman: Yeah, I think that you internalize music much more deeply if you remove the medium of pencil and paper. I think especially in terms of trying to get inside the vocabulary of jazz as an improviser, you need to get it into your ears, your heart, your soul. There's nothing wrong with transcribing - I have transcribed and written things down, and it makes things easier in a way, to transcribe more complex things. But to really internalize something I think it helps to not write it down, to learn it by ear. Because ultimately, when you're improvising, you're reading off a page, you're playing by ear and from instinct. So you don't have written material to draw on, you're working with materials that are in your head.
NUVO: And that speaks to how much can't be transcribed in jazz.
Redman: Absolutely. In a certain sense, the real essence of any person's sound, the essence of what you're doing as an improviser, you can't transcribe, you can't write it down. And I think I've spent as much time at trying to get inside the essence of someone's sound as in trying to get the notes down, because that's really where the treasures lie. For me, in terms of listening to certain saxophonists, and not trying to emulate their sound but get inside of it, that's been the way for me to grow and open up doors in my own playing, and get more in touch with the things that I value musically.