Finding 'Freedom In The Groove' and Discovering Jazz

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Fellow BlindedBySound contributors Jordan Richardson, Greg Barbrick, and Kit O'Toole write a great deal more about jazz than I do and do it so well. They get it; I feel like a need to apologize just for listening to say nothing of writing on the subject. I don't know why the idiom should be so intimidating to me but it still is all these years later. Maybe it's because I was young and ignorant enough at one time to think Kenny G was jazz- and I liked it! Forgive me; I grew out of it.

I recently read Ted Gioia's The History Of Jazz and felt like a kindergartner struggling to stay inside the lines with his box of eight Crayola crayons while staring at a DaVinci painting. He has forgotten more about the music than I'll ever know. I applied myself but envisioned him shaking his head, running his fingers through his hair, frustrated and disappointed in his pupil.

Freedom In The Groove album was released in 1996 when I was working at a record store and I'm sure I spent far more than I made. Rolling Stone gave the album a strong review and proclaimed saxophonist Joshua Redman one to watch in the jazz world, so I used my discount and scored a copy of a jazz record with a cool title by a man with a great name.

This would be a great story if I told you I fell instantly in love with the record, that I fell to my knees blinded by white hot light as the doors to the Kingdom of Jazz flew open in front of me but that's not quite true. I wrestled with trying to understand the music rather than listening to it. It wasn't enough to like it; I had to know why. I listened to it many times but, chastened, quickly returned to my rock and roll home, defeated.

Years of listening to various fractals of rock and going back to its roots in the blues opened me in unexpected ways and the barrier began to give way. I give a nod of acknowledgement to drummer Barrett Martin -- whose work I first knew through his rock career with Screaming Trees and Mad Season -- and his fantastic world jazz albums (The Painted Desert, Earthspeaker, Zenga, Latitudes, and Artifact). I investigated these albums because I loved his rock work. That familiarity was enough to get me to take a chance and that risk has rewarded me richly, opening my ears to sounds and instruments I never even knew existed. 

I also credit the opportunity to hang with a proper group of criminals like the aforementioned Messrs. Richardson and Barbrick, Ms. O'Toole, Mark Saleski, and other writers around the web with whom I've interacted. I've had the privilege of meeting Martin, exchanging occasional emails, and interviewing him and through those conversations learned about his world travels and his academic work en route to a masters degree in ethnomusicology. I've crossed virtual paths with Gioia and while I'm sure he would have been tempted to take his book away from me or throw it at me as I struggled at times to comprehend and absorb its information, he didn't, and I appreciate that. I've been able to ask him questions and gotten music recommendations from him and I'm wiser for it.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, I credit stubbornness and a willingness, even an eagerness, to be wrong. I simply wouldn't accept that I didn't like jazz, even when I'd say it in conversation. I felt it but it felt wrong; I wanted to be wrong.

My collection now includes classic albums from Miles Davis and John Coltrane as well as Pat Metheny (OrchestrionThe Orchestrion Project, and What It's All About, to name three). There are no Kenny G CDs on my shelves. I may never advance from the back row of the jazz classroom. I may always wear the conical hat but I'm no longer afraid of asking the stupid question. I now take Freedom In The Groove off the shelf and feel like I truly hear it and it continues to teach and move me.

Joshua_Redman_2011_2_27_Portland_Jazz_Festival__4_of_12.jpgThe disc opens with a playful bop that sounds like the musical equivalent of the game of its title, "Hide and Seek." Redman sticks and moves, deftly high stepping with swagger and confidence backed by guitarist Peter Bernstein, pianist Peter Martin, bassist Christ Thomas, and drummer Brian Blades.

The mood changes with the next track, "One Shining Soul." It is as moving and spiritual as its title implies. Redman switches to soprano sax to carry the melody and redeems the instrument from the assault perpetrated on my ears by the aforementioned Mr. G. It's a beautiful composition with a pleasing melody and a strong sense of connection to the song and between the musicians.

"When The Sun Comes Down" feels like a throwback to an earlier age of jazz, one Ted could easily identify that I cannot. It's an elegant composition with floating piano, light brush work from Blades on drums, and saxophone work that is tender without being too sweet or smooth. Redman plays it pretty but also reaches for notes and gives them grit. 

"Dare I Ask?" is an evocative piece near the record's end. You feel Redman considering that question. Bernstein's guitar and Martin's piano play in near unison beneath Redman's contemplative notes. He introduces a mournful figure he'll repeat throughout the song before embarking on an improvised passage. Martin follows this with a move into the spotlight on piano. He is controlled throughout and he teases us, the climax of his solo leading us to believe Redman is ready to return with the refrain that set us on this path but instead the song returns to its beginning, once again asking if he dares to ask. He resolves this question with those haunting notes. There is an air of sadness pointing to two possible outcomes: he was either too afraid to ask or got the answer that caused him to dread asking in the first place.

"Pantomime" might be my favorite cut boasting delicate interplay between Bernstein and Redman. Redman repeatedly stabs at us with a devastating, aching sax pattern. Bernstein doesn't mimic these notes with his guitar but immediately answers with a motif in its predecessor's vein. It is a simple pattern but such a satisfying response that it feels sophisticated and complete.

It's been a long(winded) journey but I feel I've found Freedom In The Groove and with that I've gone on to enjoy many of his other albums and am so very excited about Walking Shadows next month.