There’s never been any argument around Joshua Redman’s abilities – that flawless technique. But what’s very clear is he’s growing into the sound now, filling up the big shoes and stepping up. Maybe it’s his recent visit here, and the clinic – veritable masterclass – that he and his quartet offered but I find myself warming to each and every new Redman release. I’ve followed him since he started releasing records, but back then it was all perfect, almost to the point of sedate. Now there’s huge heart in the performances – well, it was probably always there. But I’m certainly aware of it now.
And Trios Live is a great way to hear it. In fact the audiences (this is split between sets at New York City’s Jazz Standard and Washing DC’s Blues Alley) can clearly hear it; they’re a big part of what makes this album great. Songs finish and the audience is absolutely a part of it – applauding as if they’ve just been shown the magic trick and some of the thinking behind it. You can picture mouths agape as Redman’s sax dances in and around the spaces provided by Gregory Hutchinson’s drums. So intuitive is Hutchinson – he’ll find a way to fill the space with a creative flourish; it means that the bass players (Matt Penman for the New York tunes, Reuben Rogers for the DC gig) can take a walk, so to speak. You’ll hear that on Act Natural. You’ll hear it too on the audacious cover of Led Zeppelin’s The Ocean – propulsive groove thriving behind Redman’s little nods to Ornette Coleman.
Elsewhere I think of Sonny Rollins – his trio work, obviously. And that’s clear on the album opener, a clever spin on Mack The Knife. But this isn’t just about tricks, about throwing down the gauntlet, flirting with cover-versions, transcending the showy shtick of far too clever jazz noises. On the gorgeous ballad Never Let Me Go, Redman is at his most expressive – and as it builds to his solo conclusion the audience lets him know they’ve been spellbound, the hush falling down into the burst of applause. Then there’s the simmering Soul Dance, its snake-charmed soprano waft dancing along the spine of the bass line, hitching on to cymbal ride.
This is top-of-their-game stuff from all of the musicians and shows Redman is maturing into the great leader he always threatened to be. Masterful and yet there’s still that wonder, a hint of curiosity in the playing – there’s the search for something else always, never content to coast. Anyone who enjoyed his recent NZ show will want to hear this. Anyone who didn’t make it along can take some solace in hearing this, past that initial pang of regret when hearing how good this is of course.