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Tenor of the Times 

Joshua Redman returns to the Bay Area as SF Jazz tries to prove it's got everything New York has -- and maybe more

Wednesday, Mar 8 2000
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Tradition for me, in jazz, is not with a capital T, and tradition also is not a backward-looking attitude," explains celebrated saxophonist Joshua Redman. "For me, tradition in jazz is a living, breathing thing. It's the language of jazz as it's evolved up to the moment, and as it's constantly changing."

That type of forward-thinking philosophy made the Bay Area-born Redman an obvious choice as artistic director of SF Jazz's new spring season, which debuts on March 17 and features a series of weekend concerts, films, and family matinees. The appointment, which was announced in December along with a new education program and name change for the festival's parent organization (from Jazz in the City to SF Jazz), is part of a push to expand artistic programming beyond the popular, stylistically diverse two-week fall season to something more regular and year-round.

"Josh is a great artist," says SF Jazz's executive director, Randall Kline. "What he brings to us is a different outlook. I know that he would like to see jazz evolve, and not stay static; and that fits with my programming philosophy as well." The spring festival, called "Traditions in Transition," will stick to SF Jazz's successful formula of theme-based programming, with each of the five weekends from March through June focusing on a different instrument or musical style. The first series of weekend events runs March 17-19, and is dedicated to the saxophone, and includes a solo recital by Redman as well as a tribute to jazz legend Wayne Shorter featuring Redman, Joe Lovano, and Branford Marsalis. Upcoming weekends highlight the guitar (March 31-April 2), world fusion (May 5-7), the drums (May 26-28), and Latin jazz (June 15-18).

While most are familiar with SF Jazz's fall festival, the organization presents other, less formal concerts throughout the year, making it the leading jazz institution on the West Coast. "One of our big issues was that we had a festival at just one time of the year, but we had expenses that came up throughout the year," explains Kline, who founded the organization and festival back in 1983. "It was hard to keep cash flow rolling. So we started scheduling these benefit-type events. We had this spring concert that eventually became a series called the 'Jazz Masters' series, and that series featured out-of-town musicians, as opposed to the fall festival which was primarily Bay Area-based musicians."

In 1992, Kline decided to combine the two into one giant fall festival, hoping to create enough critical mass to keep the arts organization alive and flourishing. But the issue of cash flow remained, so Kline continued to have a spring benefit concert every year, until last year, when the program was expanded to four separate events. "This year was the first year that we said, 'All right, let's have a spring season,' even though we've talked about doing this for a number of years. Our goal was finding the right way to do it, and Joshua Redman became the focus of how we ended up approaching it."

Kline was one of Redman's earliest fans, dating back to when the saxophonist was a junior high school student in Berkeley and appeared in a concert that Kline helped produce. "I remember being impressed with him even then," says Kline, who came across Redman again in high school, when SF Jazz hired the Berkeley High School band to participate in the festival. "And then the next time he appeared was in 1993, just after he turned professional," says Kline, "and it was sort of his homecoming concert with the festival, and it was great. So when the idea for doing something in the spring came up, we asked Josh if he was interested in doing it, and that's how it was born."

Despite displaying a natural affinity for the saxophone at an early age -- he's the son of jazz saxophonist Dewey Redman -- the young phenom hadn't thought of pursuing music as a career. "I never wanted to be a professional musician," admits Redman from his home in New York. "I never thought I could be -- I didn't think I would be good enough to be. And I was good at school, and found that I had a certain discipline and focus with that that I didn't have with other things in my life; so I took that as being the path that would lead me to an eventual career."

It almost did. The class valedictorian at Berkeley High School won a full scholarship to Harvard, where he graduated with top honors. After receiving a perfect score on the law school admissions test, Redman was accepted to Yale Law School. But instead of going straight from college to graduate school, Redman decided to take a year off and move to New York, just, he says, "to chill."

"I didn't even know that I would be playing that much music," Redman explains, although he chose to move in with a bunch of musician friends. "I figured I'd get some music in, but I was planning on getting an internship with some kind of legal aid organization. Before I left Boston, I even went to the career office and got all these numbers of all these places I was going to call when I got to New York.

"Of course, those weren't the kind of calls I ended up making," he laughs. "Soon people started calling me for gigs; and all of a sudden I was knee deep -- or rather, neck deep -- in that world." That year, Redman won the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz saxophone competition, which resulted in a recording contract with Warner Bros. Records. In a field in which age and experience count for a lot, the young Redman surprised even jazz's most seasoned veterans with the virtuosity of his playing, and the emotional candor and maturity of his compositions. One thing that did take time was developing a signature style. Redman's playing has gone through a variety of changes, from the melodic and fairly conservative sound of Mood Swing to the more atonal and aggressive approach of Tenor Legacy with Joe Lovano. Last year, Redman -- who usually performs his own material -- moved in an altogether different direction with Timeless Tales (For Changing Times), a cover album featuring George Gershwin's "Summertime," the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby," and Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'."

With Beyond, Redman's new album set for release in early April, the saxophonist has made what he considers another departure. "From a musical standpoint, it represents an exploration of new territory for us as a band," he says. "And [it] represents our moving beyond some of the things that we've done before. There are rhythmic elements, meters, grooves, time signatures that are a lot more complex than a lot of the things that I've worked on in the past. But hopefully that complexity is balanced by an emotional and spiritual directness, so that there's a simplicity there as well."

Although Redman doesn't necessarily believe music audiences have grown more sophisticated in recent years ("I would love to say that. But I think you've got some shining examples to the contrary -- namely 98° and Britney Spears."), he does feel there's been a slow but steady rise in the popu- larity of jazz as an art form. "I think that there's been an increased awareness of jazz, and particularly acoustic jazz, since the early 1980s," says Redman, "and of course, Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Festival have had a lot to do with that."

Kline agrees. "Lincoln Center has done more for putting jazz on the cultural map than any other organization that's come before it. Wynton Marsalis, whether people agree with him or not, is really the big spokesperson for jazz today."

While Redman takes an inclusive approach to jazz music and programming, Marsalis has consistently remained a staunch spokesman for jazz traditionalism -- with that aforementioned capital T. Lincoln Center is worth mentioning because the expansion of SF Jazz puts the West Coast institution in a position to compete with the East Coast giant. But though there's been discussion of the recent changes implemented by SF Jazz as potentially leading to a rivalry between the New York and San Francisco organizations, Redman is uncomfortable with such comparisons. "I think it's premature to speak about what we are, at least in terms of my role, because we haven't even put on one show yet," he says.

"I also think that it's kind of reductionist -- it's the obvious comparison, and I don't think it's a fair comparison to anyone at this point. There's no question that my vision of music is not the same as Wynton Marsalis'; but I have tremendous respect for what he's done, and what Lincoln Center represents. Now, we're going to go out and do our thing, which is going to be different -- because San Francisco is a different place, SF Jazz is a different organization, and I'm a different kind of musician. But to the extent that we're different or similar, I'm hoping that we can do, in our own way, something positive, in the way they've done it."

For now, Redman says he plans to remain on the East Coast, though he visits the Bay Area a couple of times a year to perform and visit family and friends. "I totally miss San Francisco," he says. "The SF Jazz Festival has given me yet another reason to go out there -- and for me that's a really positive thing."

Joshua Redman opens SF Jazz's spring season Friday, March 17, at 8 p.m. at Grace Cathedral, 1100 California (at Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $20-30. For more information on spring season shows, call 398-5655 or visit www.sfjazz.org.

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Stacey Kors

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