18 March 2009

Review: Compass

Joshua Redman

In 2007, when he released Back East, Joshua Redman automatically drew comparisons to Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman for his use of a pianoless rhythm section. Daunting as these comparisons may be, he was nonetheless hailed for making "the most agile and personal record of his career," in the words of Ben Ratliff. Having found artistic success in this format, Redman returns to the pianoless trio for his latest album, Compass. Leaving out the piano adds spontenaity to his music, as he told NPR in 2007:
It's a tremendously liberating format, because there's no piano, no dedicated melodic instrument, it gives me and the other musicians so much room to experiment and explore, both melodically and harmonically. But with that freedom comes an awful lot of responsibility.
On Compass, Redman ups the ante by doubling the bass and drums on some of the tracks, platooning Larry Grenadier and Rueben Rodgers on bass and Gregory Hutchinson and Brian Blade on drums. As with Back East, Redman's goal is to free up his own playing, eliciting spontaneous explorations of harmony and melody. On many tunes, Redman adroitly toes the line between outside and inside playing, stepping just outside the chord changes long enough to make the listener notice, but returning to the changes in enough time to keep the tune's melody within sight.

As with many current saxophone records, Compass can at times sound a bit too much like some of its influences. "Hitchhiker's Guide" sounds suspiciously like the opening of Sonny Rollins' Freedom Suite. "Identity Thief" sounds like the kind of tune Ornette Coleman would have written in the early 1960s. This would be a problem if Redman did not leave his personal stamp on the tunes, but by the end of each tune, you are left with no doubt who is on saxophone.

A highlight of the album is "Insomnomaniac," a melody featuring repeated, clipped phrases played over a manic groove. It is an apt title, as the melody features a pastiche of thoughts and phrases familiar to anyone who has lied awake at night for hours at a time. The tune shifts between multiple tempos, and Redman's trio constantly refers to the main melody, like someone with a troubling thought on his mind. He brings a heightened sense of drama to his solo which serves the tune well.

"Identity Theif" also struck my interest. Redman utilizes both bassists and both drummers on this tune, which sounds practically harmolodic to my ears. Grenadier and Rogers play off of each other nicely, as do Blade and Hutchinson. In fact, if you were to listen to this tune on a monaural sound system, you might not be able to tell that there are four rhythm players on the track due to the cohesiveness of the group.

However enjoyable these tracks are, though, I cannot escape the feeling that something was lost in the process of recording the album. This weekend, I saw Terence Blanchard play a guest-artist concert with the University of Virginia jazz ensemble, and the experience reminded me how little of an impression his studio albums left on me compared to seeing him live. There is some quality to his studio work that prevents his albums from leaving much of an impression on me. Compass shares this trait, unfortunately. I can listen to it and enjoy it, but the album does not captivate me. This is not intended as a criticism of Redman. Indeed, maybe the problem is me. Nonetheless, when I listen to Compass, I can't help but think that I don't enjoy the album as much as I should. Such are the idiosyncracies of life sometimes...

Track Listing: Uncharted; Faraway; Identity Thief; Just Like You; Hitchhiker's Guide; Ghost; Insomnomaniac; Moonlight; Un Peu Fou; March; Round Reuben; Little Ditty; Through the Valley
Personnel: Joshua Redman, saxophone; Larry Grenadier, Reuben Rogers, bass; Gregory Hutchinson, Brian Blade, drums

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