It’s a hellish analogue of The Producers, for which, on the music side, Redd teamed with altoist Jackie McLean, a progressive player who could move from populist to avant-garde within the space of a solo. McLean is to alto as Booker Little might have been to trumpet if he had not died at the age of twenty-three in autumn 1961. It has always baffled me that McLean is not discussed more than he is, and as a titan, which is what he was; a big dog of jazz’s big yard. Fiery and radical, he played like he’d take no crap from anyone, but not with the intention of polarizing for the sake of doing so, which is how one might feel with a tenor saxophonist like Pharoah Sanders or a guitarist such as Sonny Sharrock.
I think some people find McLean’s musical intelligence intimidating. That’s not to say his brain is beefier than Miles Davis’s, but the latter is more outrightly populist and wishes to be heard that way. It’s not hard to hear McLean in the same fashion, but there’s also the accompanying sensation that he wouldn’t have cared that much. Kafka once had a publisher who wrote to him, incredulously stating that the firm had never known an author who cared so little about what became of his books, how they fared, etc. This isn’t strictly true—but the purity of Kafka’s artistic vision made it seem that way. So it was for McLean, and the same could be said for Redd, though it’s a very shortlist of jazz musicians for which these words and sentiments apply, at this level—multi-horn man and visionary Eric Dolphy, trumpeter (and Dolphy-compatriot) Booker Little, Louis Armstrong at his Modernistic best in the 1920s. I think of them as the tendons jazz; they make much of its history move. They move the movements.
Better still is the album Redd cut that same year, which came out in spring 1961. 1960s jazz is dominated—or what I like to think of as dominated—by artists not as revered as the household names, but no lesser as artists than the likes of Davis, Coltrane, Ornette Coleman. In this brigade we have pianist Andrew Hill, arguably the top composer in jazz in the 1960s; tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, who was dissed by Davis after his stint in the trumpeter’s band, mostly because he was not John Coltrane, whom he had replaced; and our Mr. Redd. They are the fabric of the jazz of that time, whereas, the official luminaries are akin to the bright red stitching on that fabric’s face. But if you move past the obvious choices, and names that pretenders (for jazz inspires a lot of people with graduate degrees to strike a pose over what they think they “should” like, which is often music they have never listened to) like to reference on Twitter as the new addition to their Spotify playlist, you’ll discover what I regard as jazz’s jazz. The music that will turn your initial deep dive into a life-long pleasure plunge. If you care about this music, it’s to the likes of Freddie Redd that you must come.
Some albums seem to like a challenge more than others. That is, they say, “Hit me with what you got, because this is what I got, and I think I can take you out.” Let us consider, then, Shades of Redd, one of the finest jazz dates of its era, and I think I’d extend the words upon the marquee to read, “any era.” Redd cuts this session on August 13, 1960, at sound maven’s Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood, New Jersey. Van Gelder was an artist himself, an inspired—and inspiring—capturer of sound, who helped talented musicians bring out the best in their respective sounds, whatever they may have been. Certain players benefitted more from the equipment, techniques, and the man whose studio they had come to in order to cut their latest disc, but Redd in particular was well-served. Van Gelder the engineer had a special knack for drums, organs, and especially pianos. Especially lively pianos played in a style that melded rhythm and blues with a greater emphasis on the blues portion, and classical-level technique.
So, for instance, Sonny Clark, a post-bop master of the early 1960s, was ideal for the “room” of Rudy Van Gelder, and the same goes for Freddie Redd, who was Sonny Clark minus some of the R&B grease, and with an overlay of baroque-ish class. Redd always makes me think of Mozart moonlighting as a jazz man or else killing some an evening or two in an after hours bar, noodling on the other directions in which he might have gone were it not for his patrons and love of opera. Redd is rococo, but not too rococo, if you know what I mean.
The small units that get the publicity are those that have an extended run, usually with a head honcho type as the person who is obviously in charge. But jazz is a music of flux, and when flux and brilliance meet, we end up with one-offs and near one-offs where evanescence pairs with immanence. You’ll find these combos that did not have a long shelf life as working units, who produced music beyond the temporal bounds of what shelf life usually means. This happens nowhere else in music that I can think of. Rock musicians might jam together, but bands are walled fortresses after a fashion. So-called “super groups,” have a greater emphasis on novelty than quality and originality of product. They’re All-Star teams, and they last for more than an afternoon. Barnstorming All-Star teams, then. And while it’s nice to see Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams patrol the same outfield, or Bob Gibson and Johnny Bench as battery mates, the point is still spectacle over substance. Orchestra members in classical music are part of a larger whole, artists who also help shape the vision of a conductor. But jazz musicians come and go, from unit to unit, and it speaks to their vaunted skill that the bands they sometimes form, even just for a day, can sound as if each member came into this world precisely for the point of joining the ranks of that particular ensemble.
The music on Shades of Redd—and the band that makes it—feels fully formed, as if there was no need for a progression, for ramping up to this level. People arrived in a studio where a set of songs awaited—all of these, in this case, being by Redd—and there was greatness. Plain and simple, but with all of the layers that comprise greatness, and timelessness. I nurse a pet theory that the Pittsburgh Crawfords—a Negro League team—of the 1930s could fell the contemporaneous New York Yankee squads. Likewise, I’d like to see this particular Redd unit squared off against Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet. McLean is back on alto, buttressed by Tina Brooks on tenor, as underrated a horn man as there has ever been. Tina Brooks is my favorite tenor player, and you have to dig to find him. His legacy—outside of a handful of dates as a leader—is made by sessions of this nature, when someone dropped a dime and asked Brooks what he was doing that day. He possesses a Circe’s tone: lived-in, honest, a voice that beckons but also fairly, giving some indication of the rocks and reefs along the way. He’s a cerebral player, in that his is music to listen to, not really for partying. The Blue Note stable had plenty of artists for that, who’d wax dates with some of the feel of those Prestige sessions about which we were talking, but with that boosted fineness of fidelity, thanks to Van Gelder. Brooks is sax player in the mode of Freddie Redd’s piano playing. Paul Chambers—who understood a thing or two about top bands, having worked with John Coltrane—is on bass, with the dynamo that was Louis Hayes on drums. Hayes could punch up a groove like Art Blakey, but was also downright professorial when need be, suggesting the mathematically magisterial bop kit-man Kenny Clarke.