Story by Brad Walseth
Perhaps the most overwhelming, yet underappreciated jazz recording ever made, John Coltrane's "Africa/Brass Sessions," has long been neglected, in part because the material calls for a large and unusual configuration of brass instruments, and in part because the arrangements by Eric Dolphy, based on voicings by McCoy Tyner, are difficult, and the solo work (in the original by Coltrane and Tyner) impossible for all but the very best to even simulate. The announcement that Joshua Redman's Quartet, backed by members of the Chicago Jazz Ensemble would attempt to take on the Herculean task of recreating, had jazz afficianados both nervous and excited at the possibity of hearing this material in the wonderful Symphony Center. And I am pleased to report that Redman and company delvered in a strong way - receiving standing ovations and a curtian call for their fine work.
"Ballads and Brass" was the theme of the evening, and opener Kurt Elling provided the ballads. Backed by saxophonist Ari Brown, pianist Lawrence Hobgood, and a small combo, along with a string quartet, Elling was at his best in this setting, crooning in good form on songs like "So They Say," "My One and Only Love," and "Nancy With the Laughing Face" - dedicated to his young daughter. Showing more restraint than usual worked for Elling, and his impassioned vocalizing had several feminine members of the audience swooning in ecstasy.
Redman and crew took the stage and immediately took no prisoners - plunging into a fiery reading of "Africa," which featured Redman playing like a man possessed with the spirit of Colrane, and Aaron Goldberg who handled the McCoy Tyner piano parts - some of the greatest in my opinion ever recorded - with world class touch and dexterity. Eric Hochberg on a second acoustic bass played a stunning bass solo, while the brass section under the direction of Bob Belden added admirable backing on a most difficult piece. Redman commented afterward that playing that one piece felt like playing a whole concert, and they still had several more songs to go.
Fortunately for everyone, they still had the energy to continue as versions of "Blues Minor," "Song of the Underground Railroad," and "Greensleeves" were yet to come, and the excitement and appreciation only grew as the band and soloists shimmered on the Symphony stage. Reginald Veal kept down the churning bass parts well, while drummer Brian Blades handled the Elvin Jones rhythms in crowd-pleasing fashion. Meanwhile, members of the brass section pitched in stellar solos - including Art Hodge on trumpet, and young gun saxman Matt Mallinger whose alto playing nearly ignited a fire. But in the end, it was Redman and Goldberg who gave the audience their biggest thrills with their stupendous playing, and their beautiful encore rendition of Coltrane's "Alabama" made for a perfect ending to an incredible evening at Symphony Hall.