Redman stretches his imagination on ‘Elastic’

From the first moments of Joshua Redman’s new album Elastic, which opens with a short, low keyboard grind, it is apparent that this album is a departure from the norm for Redman. Over the past decade, he has achieved a reputation as one of the best young sax players for producing classical bop and swing-based jazz.

While most critics praise the sophistication of his earlier recordings, detractors have often expressed dissatisfaction with a lack of innovation from the young saxophonist. Elastic is a creative answer to these critics because Redman, at the helm of an accomplished trio, moves into a genre paved with a greater funk rhythm.

It is also the first time he has explored jazz improvisation through electronic instruments. This new approach began when Redman started jamming with keyboardist Sam Yahel and percussionist Brian Blade at a club named Smalls in New York City during the late-1990s. Their informal sets eventually developed into a recording partnership that was inaugurated with YaYa3, a June release from this year. Elastic is composed of 12 tunes, all penned by Redman, that accumulate into 70 minutes of music.

Throughout most of the disc, it is clear that Redman is exploring a laid-back jazz and funk groove. The work is also inflected with a sunny, airy bop that maintains an upbeat and relaxed tone for much of the work. The album relies heavily on fluid improvisation and interplay between the instruments that is flexible enough for the rhythm to remain clean and the individual artists to explore their own concepts.

The first track, entitled “Molten Soul,” is an introduction for the listener into the trio’s bright, jazzy atmosphere and smooth harmonies. It reveals both the high points of this album, as well as its failures. “Molten Soul” is a tune defined by an amiable riff that forms a simple foundation for Redman and Yahel to pursue abstract elements. The placid groove is occasionally interrupted by short bursts from the sax and wild melodic variations from the keyboard. Unfortunately, the experimental tangents that the trio pursues often are just muddled jabs at a higher level of harmonic unity and form.

The next track, “Jazz Crimes,” succeeds where “Molten Soul” fails. Blade provides a solid base and the interaction between the trio is fantastic. The tight form allows the sax and the keyboard to meld into intensely melodic riffs. When Redman and Yahel manage to reach such harmony, their work is sublime.

“Still Pushin’ That Rock” succeeds in much the same way. The group shows good cohesiveness throughout as the sax and the keyboard depart from the main groove and with staccato bursts, blend into a complex rhythm. Redman’s impressive improvisational ability really comes out, and the tune builds up to an amazing crescendo.

Unfortunately, Elastic is inconsistent if nothing else. While “Jazz Crimes” and “Still Pushin’ That Rock” show how successful the trio’s jazz/funk and electronic harmonics can be, much of the rest of the album drifts into mediocrity. “The Long Way Home,” “Boogielastic,” “Unknowing” and “Letting Go” create a long, slow and repetitive cycle that begins with “Molten Soul.” On such tracks, the trio never really achieves a unity that allows their improvisations to work. Only a basic riff that is simplistic and annoyingly repetitive, coupled with the remains of discordant individual reveries, are left.

Ultimately, the mediocre tracks blend into each other and characterize the entire album. It is like being on a musical merry-go-round. As the same beats and grooves circle by every so often, one becomes tired of the familiarity and recurrence.

A few tracks seem out of place. “Oumou” is an incomprehensible mess. Contrarily, “Can a Good Thing Last Forever?” is undoubtedly the masterpiece of the album. In terms of musical linearity, it doesn’t fit in with the tracks around it, but it stands on its own as a gem. It is a love-tinged muscular ballad that keeps asking the mournful question posed in its title.

Redman shows great emotional range as his plaintive sax shifts from tearfulness to a hopeful mood and from brief ecstasy to melancholic soulful musings. The last two tracks both go by the moniker “The Birthday Song.” The first part is a rather random dive into abstract bop and sonic improvisation that drifts into electronic experimentation before losing itself. The second part is merely the capstone to the bland happy bop groove that began with “Molten Soul.”

In terms of individual effort, all three artists perform creditably, and Redman and Yahel really distinguish themselves at times. It is Blade, however, who operates most consistently at a high artistic and aesthetic level. Though he is not given any opportunity to shine on his own, Blade keeps the rhythm section in form and is the foundation upon which the two others perform.

Elastic is a varied album. There are points when all the band’s repertoire of diverse elements fall into place and Redman achieves a tight electronic jazz aesthetic with fluid improvisations. Too often, however, Elastic is less than the sum of its disparate parts. Yet, as seen from several tracks, this trio has plenty of potential. If their partnership should continue in earnest, this group may yet realize great success.