Joshua Redman: “Compass”

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Joshua Redman states that his new album, Compass, is a continuation and expansion of his 2007 recording Back East, itself conceptually rooted in Sonny Rollins’ landmark ’57 LP Way Out West. In other words, Compass is an album based on another album which was itself based on still a different album. That’s a fairly rigid conceptual framework by any standard, and doesn’t necessarily bode well for an artist like Redman, whose chief weakness has always been his strict, overly studied adherance to convention and conceit. Evidently, though, Redman is one of those guys who really needs structure in his life; almost against the odds, Compass is the saxaphonist/bandleader’s most spontaneous and eclectic album yet, an album that matches its own ambition with the sheer exhuberance of its spirited, adventurous performances.

It really shouldn’t be that surprising, perhaps; Back East, Redman’s first outing as the leader of a sax/bass/drums trio, was a surprisingly elastic, pliable set of songs, with the self-imposed limitations of the trio format actually aiding Redman in his exploration of different themes and styles. And on Compass, well, things get a little crazy; though the album is ostensibly a continued exploration of the trio format, half the songs here actually employ an innovative quintet– or, as Redman dubs it, a “double trio,” with his sax backed by two drummers and two bassists. The rhythm players Redman works with are of the finest caliber: The bassists include Larry Grenadier and Reuben Rogers, and the drummers are Gregory Hutchinson and Brian Blade. All are musicians known less for their straight-ahead power and more for their supporting roles as colorists, and that serves this music well, particularly on the full-ensemble pieces, as they don’t overpower Redman, but, rather, provide a variety of different textures and frameworks from which Redman launches some of the most exploratory, searching improvisations of his career.

It’s a fascinating study in how the soloist responds to different rhythmic structures, yes, but more importantly, it’s just great jazz music, fun and surprising and eclectic. Redman uses the spartan basis of the music to epxlore a wide range of styles and moods, from the frenzied bop of “Faraway” and “Round Reuben”– two of the most uninhibited numbers in the Redman canon– to the Eastern-tinged “Ghost” and a reworking of the main theme from Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” The saxaphonist is at his fluid best here, and the chemistry he has with his band is impeccable; before this album, it would have been difficult to imagine Redman opening a record with anything close to the pure, formless improvisation of “Uncharted,” or engaging in anything as outright fun and playful as the call-and-response piece “Identity Theft,” maybe the sax player’s most spirited and joyful composition yet.

That the music is so evocative is a testament to the skills and versatility of this band, but also to their exploratory spirit. Listening to Compass, one gets the feeling that the trio and double-trio formats proved not to encumber Redman and his players, but, rather, to liberate them, to provide them with the most basic of frameworks from which they can run in just about any direction they choose. And that’s what gives this album its kick– the sense of possibilities, of genuine imagination. And while Redman has always been an ace musician and bandleader, it’s that spark of invention that has ocassionally been missing from his weaker albums, and makes this not just his personal high watermark, but a very high standard for any jazz album to meet in 2009.

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