Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau
Oct. 24, 2011
Better than: Occupying Wall Street.
As an art form, one of the strengths of jazz is its refusal to prioritize the individual over the group, even in the throes of a virtuosic, impassioned solo. Saturday night at Herbst Theatre as part of the SF Jazz festival, Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman showcased that collaborative, interdependent nature of their art in fine, innovative form.
On paper, their songs were fairly typical, as far as jazz goes -- Mehldau and Redman would start a song by introducing a melody. Sporting either his tenor or soprano sax, Redman would begin to solo, supported by Mehldau's piano. When Redman reached the end of his ideas, he would turn it over to Mehldau for his own time in the spotlight, closing with the two coming back together and eventually restating the opening melody.
Again, on paper, pretty typical. But in the flesh, it was so much more.
When Mehldau took his turns on the piano, exploring and pushing the boundaries of a piece, Redman wasn't just relaxing on the side and towelling off his face -- he was listening, even responding with an encouraging "Ya!" or "Uh!" whenever Mehldau played something particularly inspired. The effect was almost like Mehldau was delivering a complex, nuanced speech on the upcoming mayor's race or expounding on the issue of corporate greed, with Redman carefully considering the speaker's position and voicing his passionate support.
When Redman took his own solos, he writhed and squirmed with the outbursts of his instrument, and his body seemed at times almost possessed. His playing showed a mastery of tone and timbre, as he coaxed his tenor into watery, breathy, almost smokey tones in one song and made his soprano sax screech like a scorched violin in the next.
Together, the duo possessed an impeccable sense of timing and dynamics, rising and falling together as notes came pouring out of both musicians' instruments, only for both of them to suddenly pause at the same moment, as if for a breath of air, before plunging back into the sonic depths together.
In terms of mood, their songs ran the gamut from the delicate nighttime reverie of Redman's "Final Hour," to the headbanging, almost Led Zeppelin-esque "Melancholy Mode." In "Monk's Dream," the crescendo of Redman's solo over Mehldau's playing was almost Phish-like -- a chaotic, labored kind of intensity that hit a fever pitch and then exploded into a frenzy. Other songs recalled more classic sounds and, during some of Redman's particularly quick-fingered solos, a stripped-down redux of bebop.
As a sax player, Redman perhaps stood more in the show's spotlight, but Mehldau played the part of musical backbone, directing the duo's tempo and mood and using his solos to explore and expand a song beyond what its universe seemed to entail at its outset or even during Redman's soloing.
The set was the group's second of the evening, and it showed -- from the start, the two players were loose and comfortable, with no need to warm up or find their rhythm. Each of the group's seven or eight songs (including one encore) were met with thunderous applause, both after the song as a whole and after each player's solo. Redman and Mehldau each spoke exactly once during the set. "Do we know what's next?" Redman asked Mehldau playfully. "We know what we're doing," he laughed. It might be the biggest understatement this critic has heard in a while.
Most fitting detail: When the group finished the last song of its regular set at 10:45 or so, a good portion of the distinguished (read: older) audience left the auditorium instead of waiting for the (probably) inevitable encore. Past their bedtime?
Hottest part of the set: The perennially toasty theater. Maybe "stately, gorgeous theater" and "air conditioning " just weren't meant to go together.