MoodSwing, the 1994 album by Joshua Redman’s first permanent quartet, was an astonishing collection by four precociously talented musicians who would rapidly establish themselves as creative beacons. After years of individual triumphs, saxophonist Redman, pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Brian Blade join forces again on the Nonesuch album RoundAgain. The recording finds each band member contributing music to a program of stunning variety and sixth-sense interaction.
Redman remembers what he describes as “a hodge-podge of gigs” that followed his victory in the 1991 Thelonious Monk Institute International Saxophone Competition, leading to his first permanent touring quartet. McBride, who had also quickly established himself as a dynamic young talent, participated in some of the saxophonist’s first tour as a bandleader. Mehldau, whose 1992 working trio supported Redman for several nights at the Village Vanguard, joined the others just in time for the quartet’s appearance at the 1993 Newport Jazz Festival. Over the next year-and-a-half, the Joshua Redman Quartet toured widely, recorded MoodSwing, and gave the ever-searching leader exactly what he was looking for.
“As someone who had not trained to be a professional musician,” Redman explains, “I felt behind many of my peers. But I knew that I had a talent for tapping into the moment and using that as a creative springboard, and I knew better the musicians I played with, the better I would play. It’s never been about me playing ‘over’ a rhythm section with what some consider my ‘out front’ instrument; it’s always been about me playing within the band. Each of these guys was willing to embrace that conversational aesthetic, and approach that I think Brad has more recently dubbed ‘listening back’ … As a rhythm section, Brad, Christian, and Brian were as hard-swinging as you could imagine, but also had an elasticity that had to do with deep listening, in-the-moment openness, and empathic interactivity — a perfect balance of being locked and grooving and flexible and fluid.” Mehldau seconds Redman’s thoughts: “It’s an incredibly deep swing with Christian and Brian, and it’s so elastic and strong at the same time. When I’m playing with them, I really feel like anything is possible.”
Redman’s example also inspired his mates. “Joshua came fully formed to lead,” Blade says. “He led by example, even when nothing was said, and it taught me how to always give and always listen, on and offstage.” McBride adds, “Joshua is the first bandleader I saw who took such pains creating set lists and ensuring that each set flowed. And he’s very new-school, in the sense that he deals with conflict beautifully, where many of the older guys thought the way to put out a fire was to create a bigger fire.” And Mehldau considers Redman “a strong model for a bandleader. He knows exactly what is unique in each player and puts the music in a place where that can be expressed. He is absolutely the boss but never dictatorial, and he really is waiting for each of us to give him something to work with. I grabbed all of that from him for my own trio.”
No one knew better than Redman that this rare confluence of talents would be fleeting. “I realized almost immediately that this band wouldn’t stay together for very long,” he says. “Not because we didn’t dig playing with each other. But, well, because the three of them were really just that great. They were without a doubt, for already all in such high demand — everyone wanted to play with them! And they all had such strong and charismatic musical personalities — destined to start soon pursuing their own independent visions as bandleaders, composers, and recording artists. I knew better than anyone else just how incredibly lucky I was to have even that short time with them.”
As it turned out, the foursome was only together for a year-and-a-half. In the intervening decades, each has played with one or more of the others on various occasions, but all four had never properly reunited. “I knew it would happen, but I didn’t know when,” Redman admits. “Back then, I thought that maybe we’d reunite in five years, which seems like such a long time when you’re 25 years old. But we were all so busy, and we needed space, both in our schedules and in our creative development. For at least the last decade or so, though, I started mentioning it more and more regularly, bugging everyone about it maybe a little too much! It seemed like we were all into it, but it somehow never fit into our collective schedules until now … Honestly, it took a real team effort, on the part of so many different folks, to make this finally happen.”
“We would have done it ten years ago if it were up to me,” Mehldau insists. “Josh, Christian, and Brian are all my heroes. It’s like playing with The Avengers.”
Blade adds, “This band is like a turntable where the stylus was lifted but the turntable is still spinning. We just had to drop the needle, and there we were with all the information we gathered. It has gotten deeper because of life itself, and because Joshua, Brad, and Christian plumb the depths every day.”
Once schedules were aligned, Redman realized that the new recording had to be approached differently than the original. “Most of the repertoire decisions fell to me when we recorded MoodSwing,” he explains, “but we all agreed that this time around it should feel like a present-day coming together of the four of us, not just some sort of ‘reenactment’ of the 1994 Joshua Redman Quartet. Sure, I had probably twenty-some tunes that this band would have been perfect for! But it was important that this be a truly collective undertaking and that everyone contribute original music. Given our comfort with a wide variety of grooves, styles, and moods, I knew that we could achieve variety while still creating a focused, integrated program. We just had to play the music and discover which particular combination of songs was right for this occasion.”
Redman ultimately chose three of his own compositions. The opening “Undertow,” a brooding piece in triple meter, is singled out by Mehldau as an example of how “Joshua’s writing has expanded dramatically from where it began.” “Silly Little Love Song” captures the quartet’s soulful side, with more harmonic wrinkles than the usual funk groove, while “Right Back Round Again” raises the tempo and allows for swing and the level of interactive listening the members cherish.
Regarding his own compositions, Mehldau explains, “'Moe Honk' was a way to get everybody to burn a bit on the solos, while staying on their toes with these little 5/8 subdivisions in the bars. These guys just eat that stuff up. I wrote the tune and could barely keep up with them. And ‘Father’ was from my desire to have a swinging waltz in the book, like Joshua’s ‘Soul Dance’ and other things we used to play.” The track is one of two that displays what Mehldau cites as “The huge leap that Joshua’s soprano playing has taken.”
The other track where Redman sets his tenor sax aside in favor of the soprano is McBride’s “Floppy Diss.” “Joshua was truly wonderful in bringing us in on every decision,” the bassist recalls. “After our first rehearsal he said, ‘We’re missing something.’ Brian responded with, ‘We don’t have a blues,’ and suddenly everybody was looking at me. So, I went home and wrote a lopsided, twisted, cross-eyed blues, thinking back to the blues we used to play, with a little lemon and lime added. My working title was ‘When Monk Met Jerry Lewis,’ because we all love Monk, and the melody reminded me of something that Lewis could do one of his pantomimes to.”
While “Floppy Diss” was the first track recorded (“Our sound check,” Redman notes, chuckling.) Blade’s stealthy “Your Part to Play” was the last. “I knew that Joshua would come in with more than an album’s worth of material,” the drummer recalls, “but he asked me if I had a ballad to contribute because he didn’t have that area covered. I’m not that guy who can just write on demand, but I knew I could come up with something that this band could interpret.”
All seven tracks underscore how magical the foursome remains. “We rehearsed for one afternoon, did two nights at the Falcon in Marlboro, New York, and then went into the studio,” Redman reports. “And as soon as we started playing, the magic was still there.”
His band mates agree. “These guys have grown exponentially,” McBride insists. “They are super-monsters now and playing with them gave me a hard look at myself. And when you’re intimate creating art, even if you don’t play together for 20 years, you only need two bars to realize what the feeling is about, because the feeling never leaves.”
Blade laughs when told that some might consider this one of the ultimate super-groups. “We’re not some artificial grab bag of names that someone pulled from a hat,” he explains. “We have chemistry, and God makes that kind of chemistry happen.”