Joshua Redman / Brad Mehldau / Christian McBride / Brian Blade
Go back through your jazz collection and marvel at the “supergroups” – John Coltrane and Miles Davis together, or Coltrane and Monk, Art Blakey tutoring a young Wynton Marsalis, Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Charles Mingus performing together as one of the greatest trios that could ever have existed (incidentally making one of the greatest albums for and by that format).
When there were reports of jazz dying – or at the least smelling funny – throughout the 1980s in particular, there was the rise of a few eventual new legends (the Wynton and his brother Brandon, Terence Blanchard, Roy Hargrove) but it seemed less about the supergroups formed by huge talents banding together (literally) and more about the individual superstars.
And then Joshua Redman, son of Dewey (who played as part of many superstar ensembles, often featuring Ornette Coleman and Elvin Jones, or Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden) started to establish his own voice on the saxophone which he did primarily by playing with surviving legends from the previous generation (Wish) and then on his breakout album as a composer (MoodSwing) which featured a hot group of contemporaries that included Brad Mehldau (piano), Christian McBride (bass) and Brian Blade (drums). That quartet was only around for the one studio album together and a few dates either side of it – and the players all went on to tremendous things as leaders and sidemen.
There have been various combinations to feature two or three of the names on albums they’ve created or contributed to since MoodSwing but RoundAgain – arriving 26 years on from the “debut” album by this “group” – captures the first full reconnection of Redman, Mehldau, McBride and Blade.
All four are among the brightest lights of Generation X’s jazz heroes. They’re visible and have all played across pop and jazz, pushing envelopes and remaining very visible with an international following (I live in New Zealand, always have – right now I’m sure I always will – and yet I’ve seen all four musicians perform here at four separate shows where each of them was either the leader or a significant featured player).
Where MoodSwing was credited to Redman and the songs were created by him RoundAgain truly is a group effort – all four names sharing credit on the spine and in the writing department. There are three tunes here by Joshua, two by Brad with Christian and Brian adding one each. And you can hear their distinct voices as players and composers. They have their sound. Here they share their findings (and how they’ve grown) with each other as well as with us. It’s truly a remarkable display of virtuosic talent without any show-pony feel to it at all.
Redman’s Undertow is the album opener, we’re pulled along by the ostinato that Mehldau sets in place as Blade tinkers beneath and Redman and McBride work together to place the melody. Once the ship is sailing we get classic bits of post-bop soloing from both Mehdlau and Redman. It’s a bit like some of that stunning work on another superstar quartet jazz album, Herbie Hancock’s Empyrean Isles where Hancock and Freddie Hubbard do a lot of the dancing but only after the floor has been swept clean by Ron Carter and Tony Williams.
Mehldau’s first song, Moe Honk, is next. And it’s Redman stating the theme and enjoying the chance to dance up and along those ascending lines Mehldau loves so much. McBride and Blade clatter beneath, but never add clutter. There’s a reminder here that even though Blade is a composer (and both a jazz ensemble bandleader and a singer/songwriter – actually a multi-instrumentalist) he is a songwriter, a builder and creator in the way he makes a drum-part. His work here is sublime. Effortlessly shifting from a jerky funk and blues set of feels to shimmering bop. He was perhaps always heir apparent to Max Roach in the way he does this. But he stretches wider, even, than Roach. McBride is dazzling and dizzying with his nimble-fingered solo which you can marvel at simply for what he achieves, or you can also be stunned by the interplay between him and Blade; drums flitting about beneath, never crowding, never showcasing, always in support.
It’s back to Redman for the proud blues-march of Silly Little Love Song which feels like parts of a Cannonball Adderley tune and parts of an Art Blakey tune decided to speed-date. And it totally worked out for everyone, perhaps the listener especially. Here, Redman’s tenor work is superb as we hear McBride’s fingers working at the strings and frets to shape and mould a path.
His third song follows, the album’s near title track and absolute centrepiece, Right Back Round Again. He’s so melody-rich in his approach to composition, no surprise of course, but it works perfectly when the rhythm section beneath and all around is so light of step and sure of hand, fleetfooted and alchemic – Blade is throwing everything at his cymbals one minute and then you notice his snare buzzing in a samba-swaying drum-roll at the same time underneath. Mesmerising.
McBride’s woozy swagger of a song is Floppy Diss. It’s like the most accessible end of the Charles Mingus spectrum took a stroll with some of Wynton Marsalis’ best work from Black Codes. And if that generational bait and switch feels a bridge too far for you then just enjoy the feel of the song – Mehldau stately as he provides much of the dance in duet with McBride who, here, is at his best with that ability to be both rhythmic and melodic all at once.
Mehldau’s second song, Father, starts with a strong piano line that is joined by Blade on brushes ahead of Redman’s feathery alto drifting in and out around McBride’s bass-line. This is where we can really feel the joy of the players and hear the immense skill; they make this sound so easy. It’s an utter masterclass yet never feels purely academic.
Blade’s composition Your Part To Play is our closing track. It starts with a simple single-string bass-line thrummed into place by McBride before piano and saxophone harmonise and wind themselves around the branch-shaking cymbal swipes that Blade offers. This is the stately ballad of the album. A very fine closing statement to an album that is too good for any of the words I’ve attempted to shape here in support.
This is modern jazz at its very best – the cap doffed to their musical fathers and grandfathers, their own voices so obviously on offer here. This is the sound of greatness that has been worked at and continues to be worked with; this is the sound of the best jazz album I’ve heard in some time. This is the sound of four master musicians that would never rest easy, will always be searching and discovering, finding and shearing. This is the sound of an instant classic searing itself into your soul, burning its way into and towards your heart and mind; from theirs to you.
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