Popular jazz has gone through several classifications, from the bebop of the 1950s with innovatively smooth horn blowers like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, to the '60s and '70s acid sounds of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, to today’s modern jazz funk exemplified by Medeski Martin & Wood. On his newest release, entitled Elastic (Warner Brothers Jazz), Joshua Redman touches on all aforementioned sounds and styles, showing the listener where his influences lie and where this album fits in jazz history. Redman is a well-respected musician with chops that can rival any sax-man alive, and Elastic is an album of grit and beauty, mature melodies, and themes and variations that remind us to simply slow down.
Redman, who plays the alto, tenor, and soprano saxophone, is accompanied by drummer Brian Blade’s exciting and rolling jazz beats and keyboardist Sam Yahel who uses the Fender Rhodes on most of the tracks, mainly to layer sounds behind Redman’s colorful saxophone dance. A majority of the tracks follow the format of a slow melodic theme that seems to repeat itself over and over in different variations, leaving room in the middle for the three musicians to move up and down in different keys and tempos. The album’s first track, “Molten Soul,” certainly does its best to melt the soul. Its slow, trancelike and yet driving beat is the framework upon which Redman plays a smooth melodic theme, then morphs into a fierce and choppy emotional crescendo with Blade's rim shots and cymbal crashes perfectly in time to Redman’s accents. Later on in the album, “Boogie Lastic” has the same effect. It begins with a tenor sax repeating the four-measure melody, which then flows into a funk groove in which the keys and sax dance with each other in a light, bouncy and glorious way. Again, Blade's flawlessness keeps the song driving forward, as he switches his beats from hi-hat to ride and back to hi-hat. Finally, in this same class of tunes, “Still Pushin’ That Rock” is another one in which the sax begins with a slow melodic line on top of bopping drums. The beat them becomes a battle of keys versus sax, both laying down passionately syncopated grooves on top of each other, attempting to find those moments when both rhythms and intensity are in sync.
Elastic captures the upbeat and furious sounds once heard in the uptown clubs of New York City, and also features some slow and thoughtful tunes. “The Long Way Home” and “Oum Ou” begin with peaceful melodies resembling symphonic horn sounds. Redman records multiple saxophones on top of each other, harmonizing nicely in the style of a chamber orchestra. The slow grooves allow space for a funk beat to roll in, displaying that modern jazz-funk style. The sharp and poignant performances of all three musicians shows that this album’s success is due as much to the notes they choose not to play as to the notes you actually hear.
Redman visits the old style of ‘50s soft jazz on the well-chosen titles “Unknowing” and “Letting Go.” The slow and thoughtful notes are nicely blended together over layers of brushes on drums and a delicate hum from the Rhodes. Redman’s melodies stretch all ends of the musical scale, and he is able to hold the high notes for as long as he needs to, waiting for the beat to come back around. Imagine a swanky art museum with well-dressed onlookers walking slowly from impressionist painting to painting, with Redman’s smooth melodies in the background. One could also liken this gorgeous and easy music to a Summer waterfall slowly running into a still lake at the base of purple mountains at sunset. The slow and seamless crescendo and decrescendo make you want to close your eyes and allow the elastic music to stretch your mind and soul.
“Can a Good Thing Last Forever” is the track on the album that most closely resembles rock. Blade’s syncopated and rolling drums remind you that it’s still jazz; however, the tune’s love-boat melodies are those of light rock. The eight-measure theme repeats itself over and again, changing keys and intensity each time through until the end. The chromatic key changes keep the listener wanting more, and because the song never seems to reach its climax, when it falls out, we’re left waiting.
The letdown on an otherwise impressive album is that “Jazz Crimes” and “News From the Front” are nearly the same song. The songs differ in the fact that they’re in a different key and have a different tempo, and Redman uses an alto sax in one and a tenor in the other; but besides that, everything else seems identical. The songs begin with a fast paced, choppy and syncopated chaotic melody, strutting on top of a snare-centric sharp and accentuated beat. Both pieces also leave room for the band to jam with each other, but when the theme comes back, the listener hears the same music on both tracks. In this regard, this album lacks innovative creativity. There is no question that each musician is very talented and feels and breathes his instrument, yet there is little on this album that I have not heard before in one form or another.
Perhaps the most pleasing track is the one that closes out the album. “The Birthday Song” has an ambling, descending three-chord progression, highlighted by sounds that resemble that of an acoustic guitar's dancing sweet melodies. The high- and low-end layers of sound from the keys, along with the simple, straight drum beat and Redman’s hearty drifting melodies, give this song the most full sound on the album. It’s a beautiful and confident walking tune that perfectly closes out an extremely thoughtful album.
Of all the music I’ve listened to in the last year, Elastic contains some of the most polished and professional sounds I’ve come across. It is not necessarily the most creative music, but this is mainly due to the fact that there are so many talented musicians inspired by yesterday’s heroes, and for the experienced ear it’s difficult to find something new and innovative. All things considered, this is a damn good jazz album that I’ll spin at dinner parties for years to come.
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