Legacy & Lineage: Old and new jazz from Joshua Redman; Bugge Wesseltoft & Prins Thomas; Brad Mehldau Trio

still dreaming

Joshua Redman’s Still Dreaming tells a story of lineage and legacy. It starts all the way back with Ornette Coleman, the “free jazz” godfather who still daunts neophytes with his reputation for entropy and abrasion. Exposure to his work unveils the alleged rabble-rouser as a tunesmith without equal, and on early classics like The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century, Coleman pursued an aesthetic equally devoted to free expression and melodic purity. Those early Coleman records use the master’s great tunes as trailheads for idiosyncrasy and invention; they feel both direct and unpredictable, with each player developing a unique personal grammar amidst a tumble of melodies and rhythms. The restless Coleman would eventually be seduced by funk and electronics, but the spirit of those seminal explorations was continued by Old and New Dreams—a group of Coleman alumni that included trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, drummer Ed Blackwell, and saxophonist Dewey Redman. Old and New Dreams were keepers of the flame, perhaps, but they used it as a spark for further combustion. Their albums from the 70s and early 80s carve out new territory within Coleman’s elastic aesthetic; their legacy exists in his shadow, but it also deepens his pioneering vocabulary.

Joshua, as you might have guessed, is Dewey’s son—and though he’s recorded several albums of his own with Coleman/Old and New Dreams veterans, he’s always been aloof in his relationship to his father’s pedigree. The younger Redman is many things, including a deep conceptual thinker, a generous collaborator, and a preeminent balladeer. One thing he’s not is complacent custodian to anyone’s legacy—Coleman’s, his father’s, or anyone else’s.  The great thrill of Still Dreaming, then, is how it reveals the ideals of Old and New Dreams to be eternally renegotiable. This music deliberately engages with a particular sound and tradition but not as a means to preserve it in amber; instead, the saxophonist and his third-generation dreamers blow the dust off familiar conceits, taking a rangy and roaming approach to their springy melodic pursuits. It’s an album about lineage, but only as filtered through their unique and vibrant personalities.

The newest dreamers include Ron Miles on coronet, Brian Blade on drums, and Scott Colley on bass—all three players whose eclecticism both embraces and surpasses jazz traditionalism. (Colley, in particular, is quickly becoming an MVP sideman; see also the twitchy energy he brings to the Nels Cline 4.) Their performances evoke the spontaneous camaraderie and effervescent tunefulness of Old and New Dreams without ever lapsing into tribute-band territory—and as evidence, check their take on Haden’s “Playing,” which served as the title song on Old and New Dreams’ best album. The original began as a speaker-rattling bass rumble, as though it was recorded from deep within a subwoofer, but here it’s recast as mournful dialogue between Redman and Miles before Colley and Blade enter with a nervous-tic pulse. This song and Coleman’s “Comme II Faut” are the only canonical selections here, with everything else composed anew by Redman or his band members—and perhaps it’s telling that the most lovably Coleman-esque song on the whole album is “New Year,” a bubbly Colley composition that opens with a tightly melodic head before each band member peels off into a joyous and ramshackle solo, stretching the tune like it’s taffy but never losing its original shape.

Elsewhere, they recast Old and New Dreams’ lineage in their own image; listen to “Blues for Charlie,” with a smoky romance from Redman that goes down smoother than anything his ancestors ever recorded together, even as its malleable easy-listening is warped and transfigured over the song’s seven-minute run time. This, basically, is the Old and New value proposition: Musicians of extraordinary distinction putting pristine melodies through one mutation after another, bending them against their personal aesthetic preferences. There’s a prickly energy to the whole album, a high-wire tension heard in how Redman and his band fly so high above their melodic safety net, only to find their way back to its reassuring familiarity. You hear it best on “Unanimity,” a Redman composition. The quartet springs headlong into a halting groove, all four of them voicing the song’s buoyant refrain in perfectly stuttered unison, before they unravel it into a frayed jumble: Snaps and pops and rolling thunder from Blade, pliant swing from Colley, horn solos that disassemble the main theme and then jigsaw it back together. Take the song’s title as a mission statement: One of the great pleasures in jazz is hearing individual voices finding common ground, personal freedom wed to like-minded co-creation. It’s a pleasure that Still Dreaming both ratifies and expands.

It’s not the only recent jazz album to renegotiate a prestigious legacy. On a new collaborative album, Norwegians Bugge Wesseltoft and Prins Thomas engage the legacy of ECM Records, the venerated label that’s printed countless classics from Paul Bley, Keith Jarett, Charles Lloyd, and, as luck would have it, Old and New Dreams. ECM is acclaimed for its sound—bright, crisp, and warm—but also for its aesthetic, one that upholds both jazz and classical works and increasingly blurs the distinction between the two. Bugge Wesseltoft & Prins Thomas embraces ECM’s pristine sonics as well as its reputation for elegant synthesis, bringing both into the digital age. (The entire record feels like the answer to a question you hadn’t realized you’d asked: What would the classic ECM aesthetic sound like it augmented with laptop computers?) Wesseltoft is a jazz pianist long conversant with electronica, Thomas a keyboard texturalist indebted to jazz’ looseness and its use of space. Here their sensibilities dissolve into a seamless fusion, one that brings out the best in both artists while also pushing them into new discoveries. There are surprising textural composites here: “Norte do Brasil” sounds like the music of cathedrals as played on the chintziest Casio keyboard, euphoria channeled through washed-out synths. There are unexpected left turns into the back pages of jazz: “Sin Tempo,” intimate minimalism for live piano and drums, flirts with the melancholy and romance of a Bill Evans ballad. “Bar Asfalt” is elevator exotica, Wesseltoft’s piano winding its way through a funhouse of chimes and drum loops. But the album’s 800-pound gorilla is opening song “Furuberget,” an 18-minute shapeshifting groove that encompasses electronica’s layers and loops and the jazz tradition of thematic variation: Sometimes the song dissolves into its own beeps and bloops, only to be respawned as something recognizable yet reimagined. It’s a case study in how music that’s built on the past can still utterly surprise.

And you can’t discuss jazz legacies without talking about one of the music’s preeminent living historians—that is, someone for whom jazz is living history, ever open to reinterpretation. Pianist Brad Mehldau thinks about jazz structurally, comparatively, and taxonomically, not just in his heady liner notes but also in intellectually rich solo piano albums. This year’s reflective After Bach considered classical music through a jazz prism—it would have fit in well in the ECM discography—but his most colorful and kinetic albums are the ones he makes in the trio format. Seymour Reads the Constitution! crackles with energy and swing; it’s the work of a group that’s as comfortable with each other as they are with the lineage they unspool—Mehldau, bassist Larry Grenadier, drummer Jeff Ballard. There’s no overarching concept here, but the album belongs to the same tradition as Bill Evans’ Portrait in Jazz or Duke Ellington’s Money Jungle—albums that subtly animate the pliable nature of the piano/bass/drums format. Mehldau remains devoted to the porous nature of the jazz canon, here claiming a couple of pop tunes as standards: The trio brings a nimble touch to the folksy flourishes of Paul McCartney’s “Great Day,” and they breeze through The Beach Boys’ waltz “Friends.” There are more canonical standards, too: “Almost Like Being Love” begins with an ambling gait but builds into a whirling dervish of fleet-fingered piano and rumbling drums. These songs map out the physical and intellectual possibilities implicit in the chemistry between three musicians, but the most valuable offerings of all may be Mehldau’s originals: The clattering “Spiral” ascends forever, faster and faster as it goes, while the title song is a tragicomic picaresque, a sly shuffle through melancholy and whimsy. These are some of Mehldau’s most charismatic compositions to date, finding room for distinction in a lineage that stretches on.

Cry That River: Glen Hansard sets out for shore

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Every sailor comes to a moment in the journey when arrival and departure are equidistant; when all that’s visible is endless sea, and the simple choice is to either turn back or keep moving forward. Irish singer and songwriter Glen Hansard is an accomplished mariner, and it was a seafaring adventure that inspired his new Between Two Shores. The album is populated with characters who are adrift, unable to see the shoreline, unsure of what comes next; each one faces either romantic dissolution or political unrest, and resolves to move forward despite their doubts. It’s an album about “movin’ on” and “setting forth,” as two different songs put it, choosing motion over stasis and trusting time to sort out the rest.

His characters have their trepidations, but Hansard has never sounded more assured. Between Two Shores is an album of supple craft, eschewing flash in favor of fundamentals: Hansard draws equally from his days as an arena rocker (“Roll On Slow” sweetens its bar-band grind with a full complement of E-Street horns) and a folk singer (“Movin’ On” is a spare, prickly acoustic number, sent up into the rafters by Hansard’s hearty yowl), and gracefully blurs the lines between the two (“Your Heart’s Not in It” has a rousing, rustic thump). He very nearly borrows a title from The Basement Tapes for “Wheels On Fire,” which rides a cantankerous organ groove and fumes at an unnamed political oppressor, and he captures the swaying R&B of Moondance-era Van Morrison for the pained ballad “Why Woman.” Hansard lets his craft drift into uncharted waters, too; a few songs were recorded with jazz drummer Brian Blade and members of his Fellowship band, and they recall the pastoral folk and blustery swirl of another Van Morrison era—Veedon Fleece and its stormy weather of the soul. All of this is comfort food—music that’s lived-in and wrinkled, warm and welcoming in its melancholy, as cozy and familiar as a favorite afghan, or perhaps just a favorite Nick Drake record. It’s the most satisfying Glen Hansard album yet—intimate, nakedly emotional, bolstered by writing that’s sturdy and direct, performances that are earnest and easygoing.

Rivers are important here, not only employed as metaphors for time’s onward push but also evoked through the slippery currents of the music. “Wreckless Heart” ebbs and flows with a lazy babble until a watery trumpet solo carries it off into the mystic. “Setting Forth,” meanwhile, conjures the sea’s steady pull, its piano-led verses gently insistent, rumbling percussion like dark clouds along the edges. And then there’s the benedictory flow of “Time Will Be the Healer,” a song that emanates endless tranquility, even as Hansard’s voice rises from a whisper to a howl. It’s the perfect encapsulation of the album’s emotional directness, its preference of plainspeak over oblique metaphor, its weathered determination; in it, Hansard acknowledges that the pain of a broken heart can seem unending, and that some days all you can hope to do is ride it out. He plays the role of the consoling friend—he can’t make the hurt go away, but he can offer the wisdom of someone who’s seen his share of scrape-ups: “Keep your friends and neighbors close at hand/ Stay busy with your wok and don’t give in/ To the bottle or your self-defeat again.” Indeed, much of Between Two Shores is concerned with staying afloat and pushing ahead through periods of doubt. In “Wreckless Heart,” when he says he’s going to “cry that river,” it sounds more like catharsis than despair, a willingness to acknowledge grief, be changed by it, and move on. But the album’s best song is “Setting Forth,” about being brave and hopeful as a matter of intention, and independent of external circumstances. “I’m setting forth/ with my instinct/ I’m setting forth/ With my doubts,” Hansard sings. Sometimes, in choppy waters, all you can do is keep sailing; as for where you’ll wind up, only time will tell.