On Tuesday, December 17th, the New York Chapter of NARAS hosted a Bag It! luncheon with saxman Joshua Redman. Considered by many to be the most brilliant saxophonist to emerge on the jazz scene in the past decade, he has recorded five albums on Warner Brothers and leads his own quintet. A Harvard graduate with intentions of going to law school before "accidentally" becoming a professional musician, Redman enthralled Bag It! luncheon attendees with insights acquired in what appears to be a star destined career. Following are excerpts from Mr. Redman's interview with SESAC's Linda Lorence along with selected audio files.
Lorence: Today we have a very exciting guest: Joshua Redman. Since he turned his back on law school and chose a career in music, Joshua Redman has been on a tremendous path of success. His achievements and popularity are rarely seen in the jazz world. He graduated summa cum laude and phi beta kappa from Harvard College. Following that, he took a summer off to work with his father the legendary Dewey Redman. He created a sensation by taking first prize in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz saxophone competition in 1991 and has not turned back. He has had a remarkable career encompassing a number of Warner Brothers records -- five to date.
His 1993 debut entitled "Joshua Redman" exposed him to adoring audiences. His successive records continue to garner more and more fans, including the media. His journey continues with his latest record, "Freedom in the Groove," which once again demonstrates that this artist is truly evolving. He has ten original compositions on this record and it’s at the top of the jazz charts.
Will you please welcome this gentleman, soon to be a legend, Joshua Redman.
Can you start by telling us a little about your background? Where did you grow up?
Redman: I grew up in Berkeley, California. I spent the first 18 years of my life there. I was raised by my mother. My father is well-known within the jazz community, a well-known saxophonist. But we never had a father/son relationship. My father and mother were never married. I saw my father about once a year when he came to town to play gigs. We would spend maybe 50 minutes together backstage. That was the extent of our contact. My mother was my parent. She raised me and exposed me to the arts. I credit her with a lot of my success.
Lorence: Was your mother musical too?
Redman: My mom was a dancer before she had a bad injury. She was very creative and loved music. Our house was filled with all kinds of music. She loved jazz, of course, she loved classical, she loved rock and roll, she loved classic soul and R&B. She loved Indian music and African music, Indonesian music. So I grew up with a lot of different kinds of music around me and I think that it has helped me as a musician to keep my ears open.
When I was growing up, music wasn't about categories. It was just about good music. I think that's helped me because I've always wanted to draw on my different influences to create something that is unique and original. It’s also made it possible for me to adapt to a lot of different musical situations. I've never gone in with any preconceptions or limitations based on seeing music in terms of styles.
Lorence: When did you start to play?
Redman: I started to play saxophone when I was ten. But I was playing music well before that. I tried to make music on whatever I could get my hands on. I would bang out rhythms on chairs and tables, people’s legs, heads, whatever. I was very musically inclined.
My mom tells a story, I don't remember this but she reminds me of it all the time. When I was three years old, she took me to see an Indonesian Gamelan, which is like an Indonesian xylophone orchestra. It was my first live concert and she said I was really excited. When I got home I went to the cupboard and grabbed all the pots and pans, threw them on the floor and lined them up from the biggest to the smallest, took a knife and fork, and made my own Gamelan. So even before I had started to study or play a real instrument, I think I was trying to make music. My first real instruments were these south Indian drums. I can't say I really studied them.
When I was only five-years-old, my mom took me to this place in Berkeley, California called "The Center For World Music," which offered very introductory level courses that exposed people to non-Western music. She enrolled me in a couple of classes. I played around and took a few lessons on these drums. After that, I taught myself how to play guitar. I took piano lessons for about six months. My first wind instrument was the recorder and in the fourth grade I started playing the clarinet. In the fifth grade I started playing saxophone.
Lorence: So it was just a hobby thing?
Redman: It was more than... music was never just a hobby for me. It was a passion for me. I always loved music. But it wasn’t until recently that I considered it as a career. I never devoted the kind of time and discipline to music that I would had I seen it as my future profession.
Lorence: Where were you headed?
Redman: Well, when I first started playing saxophone, I didn't have a clear professional goal, not like kids today. I probably wanted to be an astronaut or something. I was into geology. I was into dinosaurs. By the time I started high school, I wanted to be a pediatrician so my focus was pre-med. I also majored in the social sciences, particularly urban studies. That area of concentration shifted my focus and by the time I was a senior in college, I decided to apply to law school. When I moved to New York, I had every intention of going to Yale Law School the next year.
Lorence: What happened?
Redman: I got addicted to music. I moved into a house with musicians I met earlier in the Boston area -- musicians already committed to a life and career in music. They were going to the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory. They’re great musicians, but aren't necessarily known yet. They will be. These were the people I learned to play with.
Right before I graduated I knew I wanted to take a year off. I thought I might go back to California. About a month before I graduated, these musician friends were living in New York and called me up. They said they needed another roommate to help cut down on the rent. It sounded like a perfectly cool thing to do. I didn't know I was going to be playing music, but I thought New York would be a nice place to spend my year off.
I started having more and more opportunities to jam with great musicians. The more I played, the more my name got out there and for whatever reason, people were interested in what I was doing. One thing led to another and all of a sudden I could see a career for myself. I could see the opportunity to make music with great musicians -- to make a living playing music with great musicians. I had the opportunity to make music with a lot of my idols. People like Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny, Jack DeJohnette and Elvin Jones. The opportunity to play, to perform and record with these people came within six months of moving to New York.
Lorence: Were these people you had known before?
Redman: I had met a few of them through my father, but only in passing. They didn't even remember meeting me. So it wasn't based on a personal relationships that I got gigs with these people, it was because they heard about me and were interested in working with me. These people were like gods to me. I had been listening to their records, some of them, since the day I was born. So it was like an opportunity to have a dialogue with a saint. It had spiritual relevance for me. These were people I idolized. I'll never be their equal. But when it came to making music with these people, everyone had to approach the relationship as equals in order to really share and come together. The opportunity to relate to them on that level was very special. I think that’s why I decided to pursue this.
Lorence: Did these opportunities come through gigs or was it through your projects?
Redman: At the time I started working with these people I didn't have a record contract, in fact, I didn't want a record contract. I started working with these people shortly after winning the Thelonious Monk competition. After winning, I was approached by a lot of different managers and agents and record labels, all the bad guys.
I said that facetiously because actually I was honored to be approached by these people. But it wasn't part of my game plan. The last thing I aspired was a career as a leader. I considered myself a novice. I wanted to have opportunities to play and learn from great, older musicians, as many opportunities as I could get. I was more interested in trying to secure work as a side man. I felt that once I had opportunities to learn from older musicians and have a relationship with them, then I would feel comfortable pursuing a career as a leader.
Lorence: On your first records you recorded a lot of other people's music. The music you chose was interesting, Eric Clapton, Ornette Coleman, Stevie Wonder... you have more of your compositions on your later recordings. Are you continuing on the path of recording all your own material?
Redman: It's definitely been my focus for the past two and a half years. When I started leading a band we were playing a 50/50 mix because I had just started writing. Over time, I felt the need to concentrate more on an original repertoire because I was trying to create a band with a unique sound and identity.
In jazz there's always plenty of room for innovation and originality through interpretation of other people's music. However, I think the best bands, both in and outside of jazz, have been able to form an identity around an original repertoire. I can't think of any good bands in the history of music that have been able assert an identity without creating a body of original work. It's through original music that you can really start to stake out your own territory and create your own sound.
Quite frankly, as much as I loved playing the great classics and standards, there was a sound I was looking for that I couldn't achieve with other people's music. I needed to create my own music in order to move towards that sound. So that's definitely been my focus. The past three records I’ve done were all originals. "Mood Swing" was all originals and the record in between, a live record, was a double CD and it was all originals except for three or four standards.
Lorence: How do you compose? Do you compose on the piano, or?
Redman: Yeah. I rarely compose on the saxophone. At some point I always have to get to a piano because with a piano I can hear all the different parts. It allows me to hear the bass line, the chords and the melody and hear how they intersect. But in terms of the inspiration for a composition, it can come from anywhere. I don't have a method to composing. My compositions have started with melodic ideas and fragments. Or sometimes they'll start with a vamp or a series of chord changes. Or a bass line.
A composition can start with anything. But there's always a core, there's a seed based on some sort of mood. Some sort of feeling. That seed can be anything. It can be a harmony, a melody, a rhythm, but there’s always a kernel. Usually it’s a fairly simple idea or motif which is connected to some sort of emotional space -- some sort of mood. I take that kernel, flesh it out and build around it until it becomes a composition.
Lorence: Do you write by yourself?
Redman: I have so far. I've never collaborated with anyone. I would love to at some point.
Lorence: Do you start with a title first, or do your titles come after?
Redman: I never start with a title. Especially since all the music I've composed are instrumentals. My songs never have a concrete literal meaning. They’ve always had an emotion meaning. They’re based on some sort of mood. I can never say a song is definitively about this thing, this object, or this experience. Because of that, titles always come way after the fact. Once the song is created, I can kind of step outside of it, look at it objectively and think, okay, what kind of emotion does this song recall? Or what emotion does this song express? Then I try to think of a title that conjures up that emotion.
Lorence: Would you ever consider working with a lyricist?
Redman: I would love to. Many of my biggest influences as a composer were musicians who weren't writing instrumentals -- I mean, Stevie Wonder, and Prince and the Beatles. They’re all huge influences on me, both as a musician and as a composer. I'd love to write music that wasn't just instrumental. I've never written a lyric in my life so I don't know if my talents lie there. But I would love to collaborate with someone.
Related sites: Jazz Central Station/Joshua Redman
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