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  Rival Tenors: Joshua Redman and James Carter  
  by Dustin Garlitz  

December 2004:

During the 1990’s, tenor saxophonists Joshua Redman and James Carter emerged as rival instrumentalists in the same way Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young did in the 1930’s. To make the two era comparison even more accurate, one most not forget about the 90’s Craig Handy and the 30’s Ben Webster.  One should also consider comparing the past’s Don Byas and Lucky Thompson to present day Branford Marsalis and Ravi Coltrane.  Yet of this decade, the two most prominent tenor players are Redman and Carter. 

Joshua Redman was born in Berkeley, California during 1969.  His father is Texan tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, best known for his work with Ornette Coleman and the loft jazz scene in the 1970’s (he also leads a wonderful Quartet today with Matt Wilson on drums.) Josh was Valedictorian of Berkley High School (a school that produced many a talented jazz artists including Handy), and went on to Harvard.  He finished the Ivy League school with almost a perfect 4.0 grade point average, and was accepted to Yale Law School.  He was confused at the time: he wasn’t sure if he wanted to be a civil rights attorney or a jazz tenor saxophonist. Redman took a year off, toured with his dad (making the album called Decisions) and then decided on playing music as an occupation.   He jammed a lot during college in Cambridge, but really started shedding once he got to New York City.  (This reminds me of something Charlie Hunter said when being interviewed with John Scofield.  He said the first three months after you arrive to New York is the time when you improve the most rapidly, especially if you’re jamming every night).  He was subsequently signed to Warner Brothers’ Jazz label, and made a very successful first, self titled, album.  His next project was called Wish and featured Pat Matheny on guitar (who went to school at my nearby University of Miami). Wish also featured Ornette’s piano-less rhythm section: Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins.  This group performed at the Village Vanguard and all across the U.S. playing Ornette’s compositions right along with Bird’s originals.  Yet it was Redman’s next album that made him a star.  When Moodswing was released, Redman immediately landed the cover of Jazziz Magazine.  This album features a killer band of Brad Mehldau on piano, the prolific Christian McBride on bass and a young Brian Blade on drums.  The second track features a stellar piano solo by Mehldau; the penultimate song is an upbeat number; the last original composition features a groovy secondary theme that swings like crazy.  After the success of this album, Warner Brothers released a two-disc Live at the Village Vanguard set, which featured Redman playing Sonny Rollins’ St. Thomas and John Coltrane’s rendition of My One and Only Love.  The tenor saxophonist’s next album was a little funkier than usual and was called Freedom in the Groove.  It featured my fellow New School Alumnus Peter Bernstein on guitar (who sounds so much like Kenny Burrell it is unbelievable).  When rehearsing for this album, Public Television’s program ‘Reading Rainbow’ tapped him for one of their shows.  In recent years Redman has released some very popular albums for Warner Brothers’ (including one disc of Standards and another with a funky organ trio).  Redman has also served as curator of the San Francisco Jazz Organization, bringing progressive concerts to the Bay Area that have included Matthew Shipp solo, William Parker with Rob Brown and Reggie Workman with Sam Rivers and Jason Moran.  Clint Eastwood called upon Redman (along with Carter) for his jazz tribute concert at Carnegie Hall.  Robert Altman used him (also with Carter, and this time also with Handy) in the filming of the Motion Picture Kansas City.  Redman is so popular that he was even featured in a Lincoln automobile commercial.

            James Carter is from Detroit (which has a very strong musically tradition that includes people like Burrell and Freddie Hubbard), and first started making albums in the early 1990’s with an all Motor City quartet that featured Craig Taborn on piano.  One of his first albums, Jurassic Classics, was released on the Japanese imprint of Columbia Records.  This set of music features a never before thought of version of Duke Ellington/ Billy Strayhorn’s Take the ‘A’ Train, a strong rendition of Thelonius Monk’s Epistrophy and a beautiful take on John Coltrane’s Equinox (originally released on Atlantic’s Coltrane’s Sound album).  Carter is in tune with the sounds of free jazz squawks and screeches, since he studied with AACM co-founder Lester Bowie and avant-garde player David Murray.   Yet like Murray (and unlike many free-jazz players), Carter plays standards and can make changes.   His first big album was recorded on Atlantic and was called The Real Quietstorm.  It features him also on baritone and soprano sax; the first track actually is a wonderful duo version of Monk’s ‘Round Midnight with Taborn on piano and Carter or bari. After making this album, he landed the cover of Downbeat Magazine with Murray (which was titled “Hit it Hard”) and was featured in a GQ pictorial (which I saw back in middle school when I was an aspiring jazz star and first chair in All-County Band).  In Caterian Fashion came out when I was in high school and featured the funky organ player Cyrus Chestnut.  I actually got Jazziz’s promotional copy of this album (one of the Editors had sold it to a used CD store on the campus of the University of Florida).  During this year I watched (on video) a Carter concert from the Montreal Jazz Festival that blew the Quebec audience away (it features him purposely squeaking and playing the horn at the top of his lungs while pianist D.D. Jackson ‘comps’).   This showed me how strong of a cat James really was.  I caught him in 2000 at the same festival (this time in person) as well as at The Blue Note in New York.  This time he was promoting two simultaneously released albums on Atlantic (which, at the time, was almost never heard of in the music industry- yet since then Outkast and Nelly have done the same thing). One featured outside players Jamaladeen Taccuma and Calvin Weston with Marc Ribot, the other had two percussionists on it (one of which was Jamey Haddad, my world music teacher at the New School. Note: Carter was inspired by David Murray’s Creole project….which I saw live at the Knitting Factory Old Office. This band also featured multi-percussionists including the amazing Pheroan Aklaff.   James second album also featured a New School Jazz Program trustee- his cousin, violinist Regina Carter.)  The first album was funky and called Layin’ In the Cut, the second was more thought provoking and was titled Chasin’ the Gypsy (a tribute to Hungarian violinist Django Rhinehart).  After seeing him live and in person during the release dates to these albums, I can tell you he is a commanding presence.  He had thousands of people dancing in Montreal (on a double bill with soul master Maceo Parker). During the last year, Carter left Atlantic Records and joined Columbia Jazz (hopefully filling the void left in their roster by the departure of David Ware in 2001). The first album on his new label is called Gardenias for Lady Day and features Carter soaring high over a string session in tribute to Billie Holliday. Check out his bluesy saxophone solo on the album’s second track, named Sunset. The only problem with Carter is that in recent years his ego has grown to epic proportions. Some have found his newly, self-assured attitude to be a bit much. Yet he does back it up with his super-talented music prowess.

            Hopefully, after exploring the diverse, exceptional and plentiful work of Joshua Redman and James Carter, many other jazz listeners will agree that these two recording artists rival each other for the top spot of ‘today’s best tenor player’.