If you assume that Joshua Redman has a big brain just because he graduated summa cum laude from Harvard University and passed up a chance to attend Yale Law School, he begs to differ.
“The part of my brain that’s big is the part of my brain that realizes how small it is,” says the acclaimed jazz saxophonist in one of several self-deprecating assessments.
Instead, he modestly chalks up his success to “just being able to put in the work.” That applies to his academic and musical pursuits alike. After an initial period of receiving “a ridiculous amount of completely undeserved laurels,” Redman decided to “make the most of my great fortune and hopefully learn how to play this music while trying to create something of substance and value along the way. And that’s still my attitude.”
On April 20, Redman will return to Symphony Center, this time with pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade, members of Redman’s first quartet. They haven’t toured together since their 1994 album “MoodSwing.” In 2020, the four released “RoundAgain” (Nonesuch), featuring seven new songs: three from Redman, two from Mehldau, and one each from McBride and Blade.
Redman himself has just begun touring for the first time in two years, since the pandemic shut down live performance, so he’s looking forward to hitting the stage at one of his all-time favorite venues.
He believes that he has made significant musical strides since those “undeserved laurels” were bestowed in his 20s, because he plays with “more subtlety, more depth, more nuance and more sophistication” and the sax now feels more like “an extension of myself and my body.” However, Redman insists he still isn’t as good as he wants to be, even after more than three decades of celebrated composing, recording and performing.
“I want to play in a way that is as honest and truthful and unique and individual and creative as I can, that comes from deep inside me.” — Joshua Redman
Relentlessly self-critical, he will never rest on his laurels — there’ve been many more, including multiple Grammy nods — because his inner taskmaster won’t allow it. That said, there are moments of pure joy that Redman cherishes. Compared with composing, of which he’s not overly fond, live improvisation is an emotional and artistic respite. Along with the embrace of his “loving family,” it is Redman’s happy place, one where he’s utterly in the moment and blissfully grooving. It’s where the notes are there one second and gone the next, forever, never to be repeated in exactly the same way.
With composing, he says, “I always want to re-write. I always want to tweak a chord.” While improvising can be “frustrating as hell,” it also “liberates me from that controlling aspect of my personality.”
Until he’s offstage, anyway. Redman records many of his performances and listens to them afterward when he feels his playing was subpar. “It’s some kind of weird, masochistic thing,” he says, “but it’s also how I get better.”
“I don’t want to necessarily say that it’s lessened or that I’ve tempered it,” he says of this tendency toward tough self-appraisal that extends beyond music to “all parts” of his life, “but maybe I have a healthier relationship to that attitude. It’s still a powerful driving force in my musical and personal development.”
As for how audiences experience his music, Redman isn’t about to give them instructions. They hear what they hear and feel what they feel. But they shouldn’t come expecting “pure instant gratification” as they would at, say, a rock concert.
“You have to be ready for a certain kind of adventure,” he says. “It’s not just going to hit your pleasure center. You have to be ready for a little discomfort, a little work, a little bit of a journey. There’s a certain kind of bringing yourself into the music, not just sitting back and wanting the music to do all the work for you.”
Redman believes he is merely a facilitator in that process. Whether it’s an original tune or someone else’s, the music comes from him but ultimately isn’t his. “I want to play in a way that is as honest and truthful and unique and individual and creative as I can, that comes from deep inside me,” he says. “But once it’s playing, the music doesn’t belong to me anymore. It never really belonged to me, especially music like jazz, where you feel as if you're just a conduit.
“When things are going right, you're wrapped up in the moment and the flow. And the flow is not a flow of your own individual isolated thoughts and ideas, it’s a flow of the collective community.”