Soulive with Joshua Redman

JVC Jazz Festival at Le Poisson Rouge on Friday, June 27.

I don’t know anything about jazz. I mean, I can recite the requisite list of icons—Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and, um, other people who aren’t dead yet—but I’ve never studied jazz or even listened to it much. I feel so out of my element here that I tried to convince myself I needn’t write about this concert at all, but that would go against my personal Code of Blogging (really!), and besides, it was an amazing experience, one that I want to remember, so it would do me good to try to articulate what I got out of it. So here goes:

Soulive opened the concert with a few songs on their own, and I enjoyed the trio tremendously. The guitarist, drummer, and organist clearly have a great musical kinship. They played off each other well, each taking his turn in the spotlight, and together created an energetic, funky sort of sound, the kind that makes it impossible to stand still.

And then Joshua Redman entered with his saxophone and took everything to a higher level. By this, I mean absolutely no disrespect to the members of Soulive, who obviously are quite talented in their own right, but Redman is in his own class: an incredible technician, a rhythmic genius, and an exquisitely expressive artist. It was an honor to listen to him.

At one point, everyone dropped out entirely while he took a sort of cadenza solo (do jazz musicians call those cadenzas? I’m not sure, but that’s my reference point), and his solo line was actually several musical lines: he was playing counterpoint against himself, like in a Bach suite for solo instrument. Taking huge melodic leaps and a complex rhythmic scheme, he still held everything together, with perfect cohesion and momentum. It was enthralling.

I didn’t recognize any of the songs—and I wouldn’t, of course—but familiarity wasn’t necessary. I like the way that works in jazz: the musicians introduce you to a particular riff and then develop it, embellishing the melody, elaborating on the harmonic progressions, manipulating the rhythms, toying with the motifs, and if in listening to it, you lose sight of the original musical idea, they eventually return to it so you can climb back aboard. The audience always applauds when the theme comes back in its initial form, and I can’t help but wonder whether we are applauding the virtuosity of the improvisations or applauding in recognition: we remember this.

Not that it matters, really. The rush of recognition is part of how I, at least, enjoy the music. After the exhilaration of the musical development, when the musicians show us just how far—and how skillfully—they can take the theme, we need the comfort of the familiar to tie everything back together for one more run.