When acclaimed American Joshua Redman blows into his saxophone in the Wellington Jazz Festival tonight, it won't be the first time he has played in the capital.
The big difference this time is that it will be in public. This is because in 2006 Redman came to Wellington to record a saxophone concerto composed by New Zealander John Psathas.
The piece was to have been played by saxophonist Michael Brecker, but Redman stepped in when Brecker had to curtail playing after being diagnosed with blood disorder MDS.
"I filled in for him for the recording. I was in Wellington for a few days and had a blast but I haven't been there since, so I'm really looking forward to the opportunity to finally get to play," says Redman.
Tonight's performance is as Joshua Redman Quartet, with pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. Like Redman, each are highly rated musicians in their own right. But the quartet, founded in 1998, has been one of Redman's longest lasting projects and inspired him to write and record his first long form composition Passage of Time, released in 2001.
"There's a really long and rich history of us playing together and I think we're really tight and really close on the bandstand and off," Redman says.
"They are three of my favourite musicians in the world. It's fun now to have gotten back together and in a way we've picked up where we left off. We are all better musicians and more mature musicians."
And Redman knows a thing or two about working with other musicians. In a career spanning more than 20 years he's not only worked with some of jazz's biggest names (Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins, Brad Mehldau, Branford Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Dave Brubeck and fellow Jazz Festival guest Chick Corea, to name a few), but some of popular music's biggest including The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, BB King, The Roots, Quincy Jones and classical's Yo Yo Ma and Simon Rattle.
There are so many, if he was put on the spot and asked to name them all off the top of his head, could he do it? "No, absolutely not," he replies, then laughs. "Once in a while someone will be introducing us or I'll happen to glance at some bio in a programme and I'm like, ‘Oh, yeah - I did play with him. Like, wow - that's cool'. I used to remember everything, but now in my mid-40s the memory ain't what it used to be."
What makes it all the more remarkable is that Redman didn't seriously consider becoming a professional musician, despite being raised in a musical family in Berkeley, California. Redman's father, Dewey Redman, who died in 2006, was a respected saxophonist and band leader who played with Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett. Redman played lots of instruments from an early age, including recorder, piano, guitar and the exotic gatham and gamelan. And while listening to jazz he also enjoyed soul and rock. He cites Aretha Franklin, Earth, Wind and Fire, The Temptations, The Beatles, The Police, Prince and Led Zeppelin as early influences as much as jazz greats and his father.
At age 9 he tried clarinet, switched to saxophone a year later and played in Berkeley High School Jazz Ensemble and Combo. After graduating with a BA in social studies, Redman in 1991 was accepted by Yale Law School. But friends invited him to New York to play jazz. Redman went, thinking it would be for just one year and then he'd go to Yale. Instead he became immersed in the jazz scene.
Within five months he won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition and got to tour with the likes of Metheny.
His debut album in 1993 got nominated for a Grammy Award.
"It wasn't part of my plan. I loved music. I was a serious listener but I wasn't a serious player growing up. I went to school expecting that I was going to do something else - so this life has been a big accident for me. But it's the best accident I've ever been involved in."
Redman says winning the competition and the Grammy nomination while still his early 20s did boost his confidence - but he was, and still is, a big critic of himself. "I am highly critical of my own music. I love to play and I love the experience of playing, but I have a tendency to focus on, after the fact, what I didn't do well and what my weaknesses are. But that's [also] been the engine for improvement over the years."
What's clear - and coming to Wellington to record Psathas is one example - is that Redman has regularly gone outside his comfort zone. Among his projects has been the groove-orientated The Elastic Band with Sam Yahel and drummer Brian Blade and in 2000, after becoming artistic director for San Francisco jazz organisation SFJAZZ, founding the SFJAZZ Collective, an eight piece ensemble that mixed generations of jazz musicians and performed commissioned works and new arrangements of modern jazz compositions.
Another ensemble, James Farm, features New Zealand bassist Matt Penman. "He is one of the finest bass players of his generation and also an exceptional composer," says Redman.
"That I've learned anything or grown or gotten in any way better as a musician, it's almost exclusively from basically putting myself in situations where I was way over my head."
Joshua Redman Quartet, Wellington's Opera House, tonight, 8pm. For more on Wellington Jazz Festival go to jazzfestival.co.nz
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