November 25, 2020

Redman, Mehldau, McBride and Blade Take Another Spin, 26 Years Later

When the saxophonist Joshua Redman released “MoodSwing” in 1994, his name was becoming synonymous with a kind of renewed purpose in jazz after a decade of Neo-Classicism: a drive to freshen, to expand, to nudge past the bounds of traditionalism while holding on to its code of standards. History was still the foundation, but it was no longer the main guide.

The album’s quartet was an all-star team of young, like-minded stars to be, all in their early-to-mid 20s: Mr. Redman on tenor saxophone, Brad Mehldau on piano, Christian McBride on bass and Brian Blade on drums. This was Mr. Redman’s first consistent band as a leader, and it performed together for about a year and a half in the mid-1990s. It became a mutually reinforcing support system, inching each member up the ladder toward jazz prominence.

“MoodSwing” is heavy on savory melodies taken at a swinging medium tempo, plus some ballads and more hard-charging tunes; all are Redman originals. Throughout the album, he exudes reassurance: the feeling of a young musician indulging in the comforts of a fortified tradition, and pledging to carry it with him as he ventures out into the world.

Mr. Redman’s career has basically been defined by this balance — of steely, virtuosic confidence on the one hand and the promise, at least, that some risks will be taken on the other. He has never seemed more relevant than he did in the ’90s, when he was the avatar of a youthful and prosperous moment in jazz, but he has always thrived.

The members of the “MoodSwing” band have continued to work together in various formations over the past quarter-century, but they hadn’t reunited as a quartet until last year, when they came together in the studio to record what would become “RoundAgain,” only their second album as a unit, available Friday. With all four musicians now about equally famous, this one is being billed as a collective effort, not a Joshua Redman Quartet session.

“MoodSwing” was Mr. Redman’s follow-up to “Wish,” a celebrated 1993 album on which he was backed by three esteemed jazz elders; taken together, the albums connected his present to a not-so-distant past. “RoundAgain” is doing something comparable, now that Mr. Redman and his teammates are roughly the age that his band mates were on “Wish.”

Far from collapsing time, though, this album shows how firmly each musician in the quartet has grown into his own identity, as an improviser, a composer and an accompanist. All of them contributed at least one original tune to the album (Mr. Redman has the most, with three), and there’s basically no mistaking who wrote each one.

Mr. Mehldau’s pieces bear his characteristic, across-the-bar-line pull, especially “Moe Honk,” with its spiraling, five-beat polyrhythm. Mr. Redman’s slithering tenor saxophone melody glides upward, then slowly drops back down toward terra firma with a series of clean, detached notes. All along, the rhythm section cuts against its own forward movement, and Mr. Redman’s assured grip stays comfortably firm.

The saxophonist’s own tunes — smartly sculpted, melody-driven — give the band a lot of room to move around, especially “Right Back Round Again,” the album’s centerpiece. On the sections with a tweaked shuffle rhythm, the cozy interplay between Mr. McBride (warm, assuring and grounded on the upright bass) and Mr. Blade (buzzing, never landing, full of spirit on the cymbals) injects a kick of wriggling, bluesy energy.

The bassist’s one contribution, “Floppy Diss,” is quintessential McBride: perky, jocular, teasing the divide between blues vernacular and cliché. Playing soprano saxophone, Mr. Redman joins in the fun, scampering around the beat, bending notes, blowing some of them up like balloons. Mr. Blade contributes the album’s closer, “Your Part to Play,” vested with a placid, luminous melody, resembling the sheer-cloth rustle of the music he writes for Fellowship, his ensemble of roughly 20 years.

The musicians in this quartet are jazz’s Generation X figureheads; their contemporaries were the first to have honed their craft primarily in academic settings (though all four relied heavily on both stage- and street-level learning as well). They have established international careers by chasing mastery on their instruments, in the tradition of jazz greats past — one that on the surface has seemed to continue healthily under the scholastic model.

But the tradition is threatened these days, largely from within: It has come to feel perilously isolated from the world as lived; more and more, what’s made under the banner of straight-ahead jazz sounds like the world as learned. Conservatories still foster some outstanding talents capable of striking fire through virtuosity-driven, soloistic, instrumental collaborations (listen for Immanuel Wilkins, Melissa Aldana, Micah Thomas, Joel Ross). But all of them seem to engage you in spite of the dehydrated musical environment that got them there, not because of it.

If “RoundAgain” has anything notably in common with “MoodSwing,” it is the feeling of musicians with a scary level of talent playing into the moment, with full faith that they belong within a lineage. The blend of outside influences into a consensual jazz language, the polyrhythmic play, the scholarly bravado: All those things felt fresh for these musicians in the 1990s, even if they usually don’t for young musicians right now. There’s something undeniable — consoling, even — about hearing them remain true to it today.

Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride, Brian Blade
“RoundAgain”
(Nonesuch)