The jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman “threw in a little Bach” – as he mischievously put it – to his opening number at the Wigmore Hall in London last night. Bach more than any of the other great classical composers holds an especial fascination for jazz musicians, it seems. I confess that I didn’t spot the precise reference to Bach, though the whole of that opening improvisation had a Bachian feel, performed as it was – as indeed was the whole of his set – on unaccompanied tenor sax. The manner in which Redman interspersed bass notes, and short arpeggios amongst his eloquent, searching melodic flights brought readily to mind Bach’s great music for solo violin or ‘cello.
Joshua’s nod to J S felt like a playful, yet respectful, acknowledgement of the century of great music-making that has taken place at the Wigmore. The great works of the classical repertoire remain central to the Wigmore Hall, though innovation has also been key as the impressive list of commissions and premieres associated with the Hall will show. And in recent decades, jazz has become a small but significant component in the Wigmore’s annual programming.
Redman’s beautifully judged and emotionally involving opening number, with its Bach infusion, was in fact a chaconne-like fantasia on the Richard Rodgers tune, My Funny Valentine. Redman began by tracing out a succession of arresting (yet somehow familiar) musical intervals: a kind of statement of the musical possibilities. He then set about exploring those possibilities. For this listener, at least, several minutes passed before recognition of the tune appeared and then came the realisation of why those opening intervals seemed so familiar. Redman had chosen to open his improvisation by outlining the B section of the tune (rather than starting at the beginning!)* Think of the notes that fall on Lorenz Hart’s (wonderful) words at “Is your FIGure less than Greek? Is your MOUTH a little weak? When you OPen it to speak. Are you SMART?” Redman had cunningly provided his audience with the opportunity to sense retrospectively the logic of his extemporised structure. Then gradually – though interrupted occasionally by contrasting sections including one short exotically modal excursion – the lovely melody was allowed to bloom.
Redman played two more pieces in his set. Sonny Rollins’s St Thomas is a deliciously cussed melody that won’t yield to the kind of veiled, teasing treatment that Valentine was subjected to. Instead Redman allowed himself a display of virtuosity, finding delightful rhythmic pratfalls in an already syncopation-heavy tune, and embarking on heady ground-shifting modulations sometimes even within the musical phrases. At the end I couldn’t help remarking to my friend who was with me that “Sonny would approve”. My friend replied: “Exactly. Son of Sonny!”
Finally Redman gave us John Coltrane’s Alabama. His approach here seemed more reverential and measured, perhaps appropriately so, but it was nonetheless moving.
Redman was appearing that evening at the Wigmore as part of a short season of concerts that he is directing. The second half of this opening concert he gave to the Norwegian saxophonist, Håkon Kornstad. Kornstad also played an unaccompanied set but made use of digital delay to set up layers of musical patterns against which he improvised. His technique was impressive, and his set enjoyable, but, for me at least, he couldn’t match the sophistication and profound musicianship of Redman. Apart from being an excellent saxophonist, Kornstad is no slouch as an operatic tenor. As a novel touch, he used the digital delay to set up a harmonic backdrop against which he sang in a fluid and unstrained manner. This was remarkable and, indeed, fun, but once the novelty had worn off, the effect seemed somewhat gimmicky. Kornstad’s technique is breathtaking, and his stage presence charming, but compared to Redman,with his mastery of form, he fell short. But then, it’s clear from what Joshua Redman said when introducing him, that he at least rates Kornstad’s musicianship very highly indeed, so my response on this one occasion should probably be taken with caution.
Two things are clear to me, however. One is that us Londoners need to thank our lucky stars that the treasure that is the Wigmore Hall continues to gleam and offer succour in a drab undeserving world. The second is that Joshua Redman’s career needs to be followed more closely for truly he is an artist to be valued.
*My friend who was with me that evening said that this reminded him of the way in which Indian classical musicians introduce the intervals of the raga they are playing. In recent years, the good people at the Wigmore Hall have also presented some excellent concerts of Indian music, for which I give thanks.