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Joshua Redman
Brad Mehldau

Helen Filene Ladd Concert Hall
Arthur Zankel Music Center
Skidmore College
Saratoga Springs, NY
April 16, 2010

by J Hunter

In 1994, I emceed a concert by an up-and-coming sax player named Joshua Redman. He was accompanied by a group of young players that can now be chalked up as potential Jazz hall of Fame inductees: bassist Christian McBride, drummer Brian Blade, and pianist Brad Mehldau. The performances were of the charts (particularly from Mehldau, who was an unknown quantity at the time), and that night lives near the top of my “Best Shows Ever” list. 16 years later, I sat in the front row of the Helen Filene Ladd Concert Hall and reveled in the chemistry Redman and Mehldau still share, and the artistry they’re able to create.

Some words about the Arthur Zankel Music Center before we continue. For the last two years, this steel-and-glass structure was the Monster That Ate the Parking Lots at Skidmore; now it’s the vessel for one more surge in the flood of great new Capital Region concert venues. If you haven’t seen a show here yet, go to whatever performance is closest to your next block of free time – it doesn’t matter what’s playing, because the Ladd Concert Hall needs to be experienced: The design is epic, the acoustics are outstanding, and the wall of windows at the rear of the massive stage makes an incredible backdrop for the performers. Redman’s reflection glowed at me all during this 75-minute dissertation on the art of listening.

In order to give Zankel’s staff time to seat the utterly-full house, Redman and Mehldau came out about fifteen minutes late. When the applause died down, Mehldau began working through the opening figure of “The Falcon will Fly Again”, a track from his new release Highway Rider. The 2-disc set is an occasionally-baffling mix of cerebral jazz and intricate Third Stream, and the instrumentation from the latter genre gets in the way far too many times. But on this night, there was only Mehldau’s piano and Redman’s soprano sax to establish the peaceful opening theme, which each player built in his own special way.

Redman made multiple noises of approval as Mehldau expanded on the foundation figure, maintaining the piece’s direction while developing an incomparable lyric. Redman sat perfectly still on his stool, listening and strategizing as Mehldau revealed more of the piece. When Redman did take his turn, he started with simple staccato bursts, eventually adding more complexity as he went higher up the scale. The music flowed like a river as both musicians acted and reacted, locked into a mesmerizing communication filled with equal amounts of drama and serenity.

The duo went through two more pieces – the swinging Redman tune “Note to Self” and the bluesy “Don’t Be Sad” (another track from Highway) – before they paused for breath and Mehldau spoke to the crowd. Mehldau used the Redman title to bust on his former bandleader: “That confirms the navel-gazing aspect. ‘It’s all about me…’” To his credit, Redman laughed as hard as anyone in the house. During the introduction of his new composition “Mehl’s Collie Mode”, Redman admitted he was feeling nostalgic on this evening, remembering the time in 2005 when he was an artist-in-residence at Skidmore.

Whatever the reason, good feeling washed through the house as the duo went through a brace of originals, standards like Charlie Parker’s “Cheryl”, and… well, a few wild cards. Earlier that day, I’d heard a recording where Stone Temple Pilots’ “Interstate Love Song” was morphed into a Bill Evans waltz; Redman and Mehldau deconstructed it even further, expanding on the loss at the heart of the tune. The Bad Plus dragged the Nirvana mega-hit "Smells Like Teen Spirit" into the jazz lexicon a long time ago, but their take was as subtle as a brick through a stained-glass window. Redman and Mehldau’s encore version was cockeyed with alienation, but there was texture and depth The Bad Plus never touched. Redman’s last note was long, soft and breathy, stretching the moment as far as possible.

It was a sensational capper to a night where two artisans took their craft to the limit, and then added another three feet. That 1994 show is still near the top of my list, but it’s got a new neighbor a few doors down.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.