LJF 2016: Joshua Redman & Brad Mehldau

The remarkable duet by the saxophonist and pianist never fell short of excellent and was often off the scale in its quality, says Francis Graham-Dixon

This set at the London Barbican - 10 minutes shy of two uninterrupted hours of intimate musical dialogue between two singular talents - was a test of musical staying power which never fell short of excellent and was often off the scale in its quality. These two old friends (pictured: Mehldau, left; Redman, right) share telepathic understanding and they swing.

The duo format allowed for surprising variation in pitch and range of the instruments. The pieces were structured yet simultaneously unfettered and given space to breathe. Joshua Redman’s expressiveness, tone and power moved between tenor and soprano saxophones with breathtaking facility and Brad Mehldau often employed the lower octaves of the left hand as if he were playing upright bass to add another layer to Redman’s swooping tenor runs.

Mehldau’s Always August, a rolling blues, was a perfect example of how seamlessly piano and saxophone interacted together in bursts of conversation, interspersed by solo reflections. Redman’s Mehlsancholy was more a circular tête à tête, Mehldau grounding the melody with tenor improvising over the top, before giving way to the pianist’s solo, full of signature motifs and percussive accents building in intensity.

Sonnymoon For Two was full of surprises – left hand only playing two low piano octaves, triple then half time – shades of Monk, tenor playing off mike as if audible from another room, then up close. Redman’s commanding ease with bop and blues makes him a more than worthy new generation successor to Sonny Rollins.

A new, as yet untitled Mehldau piece, percussive again in character, showed Redman’s rhythmical feel hand in glove with his rich lyricism. His soprano was on fire. Another feature was the question and response sections, as each instrumentalist in turn assumed the lead role as if in a dance. I Should Care was bookended by a slow piano entrance, reflective in mood, then unaccompanied tenor solo through high to low register.

Another Redman tune, The Distance, and Mehldau lit the touch paper with a dazzling solo which straddled his low bass line between the two highest octaves. At times, to these ears, Messiaen’s chords of refracted colour seemed like a hovering presence in the improvisation.

Redman broke off once to address the audience, his voice wavering, saying that he was “not quite sure about where home is right now . . . it honestly feels surreal to be travelling away . . . like a luxury in the midst of all this to make music. I almost feel guilty - life goes on”. This struck a chord with the audience who responded to every solo. Mehldau spoke: “We have a special relationship with you”. Cue audience laughter.

The inevitable encore, 12 minutes of Bird’s Ornithology at breakneck speed, did not disappoint – more questions and even more improvised answers in kind. Cue first standing ovation. A second lengthy encore, fast stride piano chased by soprano, a second ovation. It was instructive throughout to watch Redman stride to the mike as a musical clearing came into view.

Final word to Redman, leaving the stage for the last time: “I still believe in my country, and that one day it will live up to the ideals to which it aspires”. Jazz in the shape of these two remarkable musicians is one American institution in fine shape right now.

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