Saxophonist Joshua Redman has been a fluid player from his debut onward. His rich tone and ability to improvise with melodic richness has marked him and made his playing catch more ears than most. If he came on the scene with great force—he won an early version of the Thelonious Monk contest, made a popping debut record, and came with a great story (as the son of saxophonist Dewey Redman and a graduate of Harvard who was considering law school before the jazz life beckoned)—then the last decade has been quieter.
Redman is a middle-aged player now, and his creative output seems mainstream, if not blandly so. His 2015 collaboration with the Bad Plus, for example, was a popular and artistic success. But it came at a moment when that thumping piano trio no longer seemed quite so transgressive. In a scene that is combing jazz with classical new music, hip-hop, world music, and everything else under the sun, Redman’s latest recording has him playing with slightly fussy if very fluent ease in conjunction with a string quartet.
Sun on Sand pairs Redman with a quartet called Brooklyn Rider. Adding jazz bassist Scott Colley and drummer Satoshi Takeishi to the bottom, this ensemble tackles a commissioned suite of eight compositions/arrangements by Patrick Zimmerli, which debuted in London in 2014. Zimmerli is himself a saxophonist who composes classical music and in collaboration with jazz players such as Ethan Iverson (formerly of the Bad Plus), Brad Mehldau, Kevin Hays, and Larry Grenadier. In 2013, he contributed string arrangements to Redman’s ballad album Walking Shadows.
Sun on Sand pulls music from a suite called “Aspects of Darkness and Light”, which tries to address visual effects through sound—and the music does have qualities that glimmer, glisten, dim, and fall into shade. The combination of sounds is bright for the most part—Redman flashes and flies on many tracks, playing with the precision of a string quartet collaborator, but fueled by a real jazz rhythm section.
The playing of Brooklyn Rider (the violins of Colin Jacobsen and Johnny Gandelsman, the viola of Nicholas Cords, and cellist Eric Jacobsen) is mostly out front, not mere accompaniment to saxophone melodies. The recording is engineered to make the quartet sound full rather than chamber-small. With Colley pulsing beneath them, of course, they are really a string quintet, and Zimmerli’s quartet writing is usually in motion, allowing the strings to move like water (or, well, light). On the opening statement, “Flash”, the quartet plays a long, fast line of arpeggiated melody, with Redman in unison or counterpoint at a fast tempo. The song is, of course, flashy, and after the main theme is complete, Redman plays several unaccompanied cadenzas in between short quartet interludes. That is followed by a chasing kind of call-and-response section, with saxophone and quartet popping back and forth before coming back together for the closing, all in under five minutes. When Redman solos with just Colley and Takeishi in the second half, there is a hint of Sonny Rollins in the air, and this leads to the quartet trading fours with drums. Boom and boom, you are hooked.
Not everything, however, feels quite this flowing and fun. “Soft Focus” utterly evokes glimmering light, with Brooklyn Rider dancing like a band of tiny rays in different spectra, Redman flutters too, in counterpoint that seems like the play of sun on a pond. It sounds like pure programmatic music from start to end. “Starbursts and Haloes” sounds like light just barely creeping over a horizon, with the quartet playing long-held notes that shift in small ways to create texture and a buzzing drone. Redman improvises quietly over this quiet glow, ballad saxophone that tiptoes and whispers until Takeishi enters with a stream of rattling toms.
“Through Mist” turns much the same trick—evoking a vision, a feeling, creating mood. Although this composition benefits from Colley and Takeishi setting up a groove, the descending figure that becomes the melody is less interesting than it is evocative. The arrangement is extraordinarily inventive, with the quartet moving into riveting fantasias on the melody, then the saxophone returning, with pauses and little pools of pause. The title track, “Sun on Sand”, also works because of the trio of sax, bass, and drums—with Colley’s bass glissing notes upward on the neck like it was a blues guitar. Brooklyn Rider imitates this bent-note motif in the written arrangement, but the song feels more like a blues-mood piece more than anything else. Redman and Colley make it worth your while with their blues improvising, but the arrangement is (frankly) just getting in the way of the trio stretching out more fully and joyfully.
The two ensembles on Sun on Sand work best together when they are evenly matched, each with important business at hand that is conjoined. “Dark White” is an aggressive theme, with the string quartet as driving as the jazz trio, and with Redman sometimes having a complex role in the arrangement that is in the nature of accompaniment. The best part may be two-thirds of the way through when Brooklyn Rider is matched against the rhythm section, each pushing and pulling and revving up, without Redman. Then, when Redman reenters, it all feels that much more powerful.
The most complete and balanced arrangement and performance is “Between Dog and Wolf”, which puts it all together. The quartet has a driving and riveting theme that circles round and round to create rhythm, and the Colley Takeishi team creates a tumbling kind of momentum that locks in with the strings—setting up a Redman saxophone melody that both rides above the groove and joyfully deviates from it. Zimmerli’s arrangement allows Redman to play bits of the string part and allows the strings to grab moments of melody that are all their own. And it is the track here that seems both utterly cogent as modern jazz and respectful of a classical string approach. The track is so good, of course, that it is reprised again at the end of Sun on Sand, differently and wonderfully.
The struggle with the recording as a whole, however, is that these moments of real flight—of the music taking off the way you imagine both Zimmerli and Redman hoped it would—are too few. The ecstasy of “Flash” and “Between Dog and Wolf” tease your ears with the notion of what this collaboration might have been. Or, possibly, that the kind of blazing interaction between a string quartet and a jazz trio simply isn’t something that works across a whole program? Sun on Sand makes it work brilliantly, perhaps only half the time.
And maybe that’s the reason this kind of thing isn’t attempted all that often.