As mission statements go, it’s hard to top the first track from Still Dreaming’s eponymous debut. “New Year” opens with a loose fanfare, trumpet, tenor saxophone, and bass harmonizing a jaunty line atop playfully raucous drums. A minute in, all four musicians take off in a rocket-fuelled game of tag, before reconvening around the opening line. After that, bandleader Joshua Redman eases into an unabashedly swinging sax solo that subtly references Sonny Rollins; trumpeter Ron Miles shows that two can play that game by explicitly quoting the tenor titan’s catchy “St. Thomas”; bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade trade amiable fours; and then the head returns—although this time, the drums are playing the melody, too.
A number of things are remarkable about this band, not least that its music sounds both fresh and familiar. And that freshness is especially surprising, given that Still Dreaming is a kind of tribute band, and the band it’s paying tribute to was itself paying homage to an even earlier quartet.
“We’ve kind of formed ourselves as a celebration of this band Old and New Dreams,” Redman says, referring to the ensemble that his father, Dewey Redman, had with Ornette Coleman alumni Don Cherry, Ed Blackwell, and Charlie Haden between 1976 and 1987. Old and New Dreams’ remit was to keep building on the acoustic approach Coleman introduced in the 1950s, which Redman says is based on “a free way of playing—a way of playing where you have to improvise form at the same time that you’re improvising melodies”.
Ensuring that this “free jazz” approach hasn’t been done to death is the fact that to do it well requires consummate musicianship. Having worked with the best of the best, Redman and his bandmates certainly meet that requirement, but even more extraordinary than their playing is their listening. Spend some time with Still Dreaming, and you’ll hear a stream of subtle interactions between the four players, all generated spontaneously.
“I’m glad that you identified that aspect of it, because that is one of the most important attitudes that you can have as an improvising jazz musician today—a real value placed on listening,” Redman says, adding that his bandmates are “three of the sweetest and most soulful and most sensitive human beings I’ve known. Everyone is just so nice and so cool. And in this case, I think everyone’s personality really is reflected in the way they play.
“You hear stories about some amazing jazz musicians who could break your heart playing the most beautiful, sensitive, lyrical, and melancholic music, and maybe some of them didn’t have the best reputation in terms of how they treated other people,” he continues. “So I don’t know if that’s always true, but in the case of this band, I think it is.”
Joshua Redman’s Still Dreaming plays the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Tuesday (November 13).