Joshua Redman and Still Dreaming at the Manchester Jazz Festival

Although I am fond of jazz, I do not normally write blogs about it, primarily because I have insufficient knowledge and vocabulary to confidently exercise critical faculties. But I had the urge to communicate my responses to this special occasion: the appearance of a world class performer Joshua Redman with his band Still Dreaming at the Manchester Jazz Festival. It was their only gig in Britain. Sometimes when top American artists cross the Atlantic, perhaps on an exhausting tour,  you feel that they are cruising rather than giving of their best. Not so with this group; they were certainly on their toes and gave a gripping, exhilarating performance.

Innovative too, which is not always easy for jazz musicians today, compared with forty years ago when I first started going to jazz. That was a time when there was exploration in all directions and the crossing of new frontiers. Nowadays fresh approaches are difficult to conceive and, almost inevitably, there is a looking back to, and development of, previous styles and systems. In the case of Still Dreaming, this is explicit because their title relates back to Old and New Dreams, an Ornette Coleman band of the 1970s and 1980s.

Whatever the Old and New Dreams may have contained, there are intriguing dimensions to the playing of Still Dreaming: the way in which the musicians interact with each other, the cornet echoing the saxophone but a syncopated second apart and with a different harmonic thrust; the bass and drums, while providing the essential rhythmic base, interjecting their own melodic material; a constant shifting of speed and dynamics so that the quieter, slower passages assume a dramatic impact as telling as those which are louder and faster.

All the numbers they played were composed-through. In the past I thought this was in some way inferior, because it inhibited improvisation which is of the essence in jazz. I now realise that the opposite may be true. Having the structure and ingredients of the music pre-determined may enable the performers to undertake more daring and complex effects, while improvisation can sometimes result in them falling back on routine, with all-too-familiar variations and phrasing.

Joshua Redman on the tenor saxophone was jerkily extrovert and intense in his virtuoso rendering of the themes, energetically building up to the climaxes with high-pitched squeaks and crunching harmonic effects. Ron Miles playing of the cornet was more introverted, keener on bringing out the pathos in the melody. The bass was more prominent in this band than is normal, this because Scott Colley, in developing the phrases introduced by other instruments, was able to bring enormous variety to colour and rhythm. Brian Blade’s drums expertly underpinned all that happened and, more than this, he added his own creativity to the compositions.

A truly great evening of jazz which ended by the band being forced to play an encore by the large audience’s prolonged and enthusiastic applause. Classical musicians who are only too ready to impose encores on audiences, please note.