No turning back for jazz tenor Redman

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ROME - Tenor saxophone great Joshua Redman is content to leave the past just where it is.

Some 15 years after critics christened him one of the best young jazz musicians of his generation, the 38-year-old Californian says he will never return to the way he played in his early career.

"I wouldn't play that way, and I couldn't play that way (or) write that way, now if I wanted to," Redman said interview in Rome during his European tour.

"Sometimes I might hear myself come on the radio ... and I'll be like: 'Wow. That's so cool -- it's so simple and almost naive in certain ways'.

"But there's a quality that I appreciate about it, but I also know that was then, and if I tried to write a tune like that now it would come off as contrived."

It seems to all be about forward motion for Redman, a Harvard graduate who turned down an invitation to Yale law school in 1991, and instead stormed onto the jazz scene. He took first place in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition that same year and has never looked back.

After winning praise in recent years for his very non-traditional, plugged-in Elastic Band, which could just as easily play tunes from Led Zeppelin as Ornette Coleman, Redman has now taken his first stab recording in an acoustic jazz trio.

Redman's not reinventing himself though, he says, or rolling back the clock.

"I don't see it as reinvention as much as continual evolution, education, growth," he said.

"I get very deeply into certain projects, and try to give them time to really develop. And then, at a certain point, I feel I need to move into another musical context."

Critics say his new album, "Back East," is one of the best of his career. It is his 11th record as a band leader and its name is itself a nod to Sonny Rollins' album "Way Out West," recorded a half-century earlier.

But "Back East" is arguably more of a personal than professional milestone for Redman.

It was last time he was able to play with his father, fellow tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, who died shortly after the two recorded together last year. He was 75.

"Neither of us knew at the time that it would be the last time we played together. The last time we saw each other," Redman said.

Redman, now himself a father of a 20-month-old toddler, said he didn't think Dewey would agree to appear on the album "because every time I played with him before it had always been in one of his bands, in one of his situations."

"But I asked him and he said yes," he said.

"It was an amazing experience, first just to get to play alongside one of my favorite tenor players ... and second, to get to know my father, because I did not grow up with him."

Asked what music he was listening to, Redman joked that becoming a father himself had affected his listening habits.

"I've been really focused on being a Dad, and I'm on the road a lot, so, sometimes I worry -- I don't pick up the iPod or pick up the CDs as much as I used to," he said.

On tour, Redman plays in a trio along with just a bass and drums -- a big challenge, he says, because there isn't the support of a piano or other dedicated harmonic instrument.

"There's that much more weight placed on each note because there are so few notes being played," he said.

"In every way it takes incredible focus and discipline and energy -- and I don't just mean physical energy, but mental energy and spiritual energy. Clarity."

For audiences, it's an engaging show that gives plenty of space for Redman to express more than a decade and a half of self-described musical "evolution."

His upcoming tour dates include Nov 15 in Madrid and Nov 22 in London.

"It's been really hard and it continues to kick my butt night after night. But what's great about it is that there is a tremendous amount of freedom," he said.

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