(Not Quite) A MoodSwing Reunion: Jazz all-stars electrify Hill Auditorium despite missing a key member
Joshua Redman comes across as surprisingly shy for one of the best saxophonists in the world. Instrument held slightly off to the side, he addressed the immense crowd at Hill Auditorium on Thursday night from behind his reading glasses and with an endearing timidity, almost apologetically searching for the right words as he gave titles for the night’s first two pieces and introduced his band. Never once did he betray even a hint of the fact that a minute before he’d delivered the kind of virtuosic performance only a handful of people in the world could give.
The saxophonist and composer was joined onstage by talents no less ferocious than his own, almost a full reunion of the Joshua Redman Quartet lineup from the ‘90s. Bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade—Grammy winners both—grounded the ensemble as its rhythm section throughout the night, occasionally breaking out for breathtaking solos, and the only absence from the old days was pianist Brad Mehldau, who was originally slated to appear but called in sick at the last minute.
When UMS president Matthew VanBesien told the audience Mehldau had taken ill a groan spread across the crowd, only to be supplanted by applause as Sullivan Fortner was announced as his replacement. Of a younger generation than the others but quickly becoming just as famous, Fortner will make an appearance on the UMS stage next season with Cécile McLoran Salvant, who is known to UMS audiences for her frequent performances in recent years. His presence was a welcome addition, even with the disappointment of missing out on Mehldau, and one that gave Redman and Fortner a chance to play together—a chance Redman said he had the text thread to prove they’d been trying to arrange for a long time.
The band led off with a couple pieces from the original MoodSwing record that Redman, Blade, Mehldau, and McBride released in ‘94: “Mischief” and “The Oneness of Two - In Three.” The first of these is a jaunty, and, well, mischievous tune that begins with a laid-back, restrained statement of the head by the saxophone as the bass plucks a descending line. But as the improvisations progressed, the music became more and more extreme, its easy-going character forgotten as Redman showcased his range and coaxed his saxophone, note by note, into its highest register. The second piece—quicker, but hardly off to the races, in a slowly-felt three meter—gave even more opportunities for the players to showcase their skill. In one moment, when Redman again shot into the stratosphere (even higher this time, as he’d switched out his tenor sax for a soprano), an audience member spontaneously interjected “yeah!” as the bandleader hit the high point, with Brian Blade grinning at him from across the drumset, Fortner adding in occasional, seemingly involuntary claps, and McBride nodding along before the piece concluded with a funny, fake-out ending.
Following the band’s introductions after the first two pieces, the quartet switched tracks to some newer material, taken from the 2020 record RoundAgain, the album that Redman, Mehldau, Blade, and McBride were touring to promote. They started with “Undertow,” which from the getgo comes across as more musically daring than the previous pieces. Almost inaudible at first, Redman started with a tightly wound, serpentine, chromatic solo that was reminiscent of the 20th-century avant-garde with its impressive multiphonics, which blossomed into glittering, lightning fast arpeggios up and down the range of the instrument before subsiding into the quiet first theme again, gently picked up by Fortner on piano as the rest of the combo came in. At many moments “Undertow” felt more intricately composed than the music that came before it. During the statement of the themes, the ensemble worked together in counterpoint, with a layering of thematic material between the instruments that came across as carefully planned, before the players took turns presenting sophisticated solos. Fortner’s in particular was a gem, with a smattering of rolled, Scriabin-esque chords and the theme running as a quiet undercurrent throughout, which, when paired with Redman’s opening, made the piece one of the standouts of the evening.
McBride took the lead for the next tune, the source of the album’s title, “Right Back Round Again.” His opening solo started off reflective, with poignant inflections in the line caused by quick, ornamental glissandos away and back to the main note, before gradually building into a virtuosic, quick-moving display of skill that sometimes—with its double-stop pizzicatos moving in parallel motion—gave off an ‘80s rock vibe and showcased his impressive left-hand pizzicato. Winding down from the solo, McBride segued flawlessly into the introduction of the main theme with the whole ensemble, a quick, mercurial tune that shifted back and forth between moods with little warning, bar by bar.
The band rounded out the evening with three more pieces from the new record, the laid-back “Floppy Diss” by McBride, which featured a deceptively simple bass part, Blade’s “Your Part To Play”—a sensitive, slowly building piece that seemed to take a longer view of form than most jazz compositions do and deserves special mention for its beauty—and “Silly Little Love Song,” which, true to its name, sometimes felt like a Billy Joel-style ballad.
By the time the combo came back onto stage amidst the audience’s rapturous applause to play an encore, the entire hall was begging for more. The quartet opted for something that Redman claimed they hadn’t played since 1994, and had never recorded in a studio, called “The Deserving Many,” an up-tempo, catchy piece that left listeners humming on the way out. \
By and large, the evening was a triumph, Brad Mehldau’s non-appearance notwithstanding, and the next time any of the four passes through, the house is sure to be full again. I’d certainly be there.
Dayton Hare is the editor of The Ann Arbor Observer's newsletter, a2view, and the former managing editor at The Michigan Daily. He earned a BM in music composition and BA in honors English at the University of Michigan.