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By Michael E. Miller
here's a story of a jazz saxophone player, one of the great avant-garde tenors, who was approached after a concert in Europe a few years back by a fan wanting an autograph. The fan handed him two CDs recorded by the sax player's son, Joshua Redman, and asked him to sign one for his wife, "To Eileen, from Joshua Redman."
The sax player in question is, of course, Dewey Redman. And what he told that fan to do with his autograph can't be printed in a paper even as indelicate as this one.
But such is life for a man with a young, talented, and highly marketable son like Joshua Redman. No matter how brilliant a musician Dewey Redman happens to be, and has been over his nearly 40-year career, the limelight has fallen everywhere but on his golden tenor sax. Comments from Joshua's fans only hammer that fact home.
"Oh man, oh man. I get: 'Are you Dewey Redman? Are you Joshua's father?' 'Do you still play music?' 'Did you used to play music?'" says an exasperated Redman from his home in New York. "But as far as Joshua's concerned, he's a very gifted young man, very gifted musician. I'm very proud of him."
The irony of it all is that Dewey is a much more innovative player than his son, having contributed immensely to the evolution of free and avant-garde jazz during the heyday of those genres in the late Sixties and Seventies. But in the commercial world that is today's jazz, nothing determines success so much as the heavy promotion of mostly young, stylish players, talent being somewhere down the list. In fact if notoriety were based on talent alone, Dewey Redman would be one of the most heralded jazz musicians around.
But you won't find Redman lying awake at night worrying about the fame and fortune that should have been. He's content to receive his accolades from the people who know jazz best -- other musicians.
"Everywhere I go in the world, musicians come up to me and tell me how much they've enjoyed my playing," says the 70-year-old Redman. "But from the other side, I haven't been voted number anything of anything. But the music world knows who I am and I'm very proud of that. And it doesn't bother me, not really. It used to, but not now."
Perhaps the work Redman is best known for is his association with the Ornette Coleman Quartet from 1967 through 1974, easily the most innovative and important group in the free-jazz idiom. Redman's sound is a natural fit and his playing every bit as free as Coleman's. An old schoolmate from Fort Worth, Texas, Coleman invited the tenor player into his band when Redman first moved to New York, as the group toured widely and recorded a series of phenomenal albums.
Prior to joining Coleman's quartet, Redman honed his chops in the San Francisco jazz scene of the early Sixties with players like Pharoah Sanders and Wes Montgomery. In the Seventies Redman was part of Charlie Haden's politically oriented Liberation Music Orchestra, and was a key member of Keith Jarrett's far-reaching quintet during the pianist's most interesting period. Later in 1976 Redman formed a band with Coleman's old bandmates -- Haden, Don Cherry, and Ed Blackwell -- known as Old and New Dreams.
Throughout this period and in all the recordings Redman produced with these various groups, his musical presence looms large. It's a rich, earthy sound on fresh improvisational ideas, always intense and beautiful, with a powerful musical personality that proved vital to each band's overall sound and character. This trademark sound, a hallmark for any great musician, is what Redman strives for with each performance.
"The first thing I reach for is a good sound. And technique, maybe I can get that, but there's also technique in good sound. So that's the first thing on my list is to get a good sound," says Redman. "It's always a challenge because I play a variety of styles. And I try to make the sound fit the style, because I don't play in one style all night."
It's Redman's willingness to take chances that has made him a true original throughout his long and fruitful career. His most recent album, Momentum Space, is a highly adventurous, atonal session with the strong-willed playing of pianist Cecil Taylor and drummer Elvin Jones; it's further testament to Redman's continued drive toward innovation.
"There was nothing written down, there were no notes," says Redman. "We sort of talked our way through it -- in other words we exchanged ideas and we went from there. Everybody had something to put into this project."
Of course this kind of jazz won't sell millions of records or get much airplay on WLVE (93.9). It's a style of jazz, like all of Redman's music, that belongs in smoky, urban jazz clubs -- giants of improvisation groaning under hot yellow lights, reaching for those slippery moments of perfect expression.
"I've had the chance to play with some of the best musicians, with Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, Old and New Dreams," says Redman when asked about some of his more memorable experiences. "And you know the highlight of my life has been my career, just being able to survive in New York for 34 years and to have the experience of playing music, and playing with my band. Not too bad for a country boy from Texas."