Redman, Mehldau, McBride and Blade Take Another Spin, 26 Years Later


Mr. Mehldau’s pieces bear his characteristic, across-the-bar-line pull, especially “Moe Honk,” with its spiraling, five-beat polyrhythm. Mr. Redman’s slithering tenor saxophone melody glides upward, then slowly drops back down toward terra firma with a series of clean, detached notes. All along, the rhythm section cuts against its own forward movement, and Mr. Redman’s assured grip stays comfortably firm.

The saxophonist’s own tunes — smartly sculpted, melody-driven — give the band a lot of room to move around, especially “Right Back Round Again,” the album’s centerpiece. On the sections with a tweaked shuffle rhythm, the cozy interplay between Mr. McBride (warm, assuring and grounded on the upright bass) and Mr. Blade (buzzing, never landing, full of spirit on the cymbals) injects a kick of wriggling, bluesy energy.

The bassist’s one contribution, “Floppy Diss,” is quintessential McBride: perky, jocular, teasing the divide between blues vernacular and cliché. Playing soprano saxophone, Mr. Redman joins in the fun, scampering around the beat, bending notes, blowing some of them up like balloons. Mr. Blade contributes the album’s closer, “Your Part to Play,” vested with a placid, luminous melody, resembling the sheer-cloth rustle of the music he writes for Fellowship, his ensemble of roughly 20 years.

The musicians in this quartet are jazz’s Generation X figureheads; their contemporaries were the first to have honed their craft primarily in academic settings (though all four relied heavily on both stage- and street-level learning as well). They have established international careers by chasing mastery on their instruments, in the tradition of jazz greats past — one that on the surface has seemed to continue healthily under the scholastic model.

But the tradition is threatened these days, largely from within: It has come to feel perilously isolated from the world as lived; more and more, what’s made under the banner of straight-ahead jazz sounds like the world as learned. Conservatories still foster some outstanding talents capable of striking fire through virtuosity-driven, soloistic, instrumental collaborations (listen for Immanuel Wilkins, Melissa Aldana, Micah Thomas, Joel Ross). But all of them seem to engage you in spite of the dehydrated musical environment that got them there, not because of it.

If “RoundAgain” has anything notably in common with “MoodSwing,” it is the feeling of musicians with a scary level of talent playing into the moment, with full faith that they belong within a lineage. The blend of outside influences into a consensual jazz language, the polyrhythmic play, the scholarly bravado: All those things felt fresh for these musicians in the 1990s, even if they usually don’t for young musicians right now. There’s something undeniable — consoling, even — about hearing them remain true to it today.

Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride, Brian Blade

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