Color Coded

Jazz pianist Freddie Redd’s elementally sublime, and sublimely elemental, Shades of Redd


in Features • Illustrated by Camille Velasquez


Certain jazz musicians play — and compose — as if they are card-carrying members of the elements. We feel like they will always exist, because it sounds like they always have. They are bedrock in their rhythms, the sky in their melodies.

Pianist Freddie Redd, who died on St. Patrick’s Day 2021, could seem elemental in that he had existed as a musician for so long, pushing on to the age of 92. He is frequently summed up as a hard bop artist, which speaks more to the lack of an apropos category in which to situate him than Redd as an out-and-out hard bopper. Hard bop is the jazz version of rhythm and blues. You danced to it, played it on jukeboxes, turned it up when it came on the radio. Less commonly was it believed that it was music that you thought through. Toe-tapping is not the same as considered mulling, and Redd made music to mull. He shed labels just like his playing could shed the expectations one’s ear generally has for the next chord change up around the bend, or the modulation that would follow from another gifted composer, though one, perhaps, not blessed with quite the largess of talent as Redd.

He is someone that “in the know” jazz people have known going back to the mid-1950s, when his debut as a leader, Introducing the Freddie Redd Trio, appeared on the Prestige label, where Miles Davis and John Coltrane also worked. Prestige was a company that sped you on your way. They let you record a lot — so long as you moved swiftly. Coltrane and Davis would barrel through enough material to fill multiple albums in a single day. The music was raw, but these were artists who could make rawness — and under-rehearsed material — work in their favor. We’re talking a different level of chops, which can themselves be enough to power an afternoon of music-making into a handful of masterpieces.

Freddie Redd was not quite this way. He needed time, and his chops, as such, were not as physical; he wasn’t a “brawn” musician. What’s that dictum of work smarter, not harder? I feel like this was Redd within the parameters of jazz. He was a regular hitter of high marks in his career, but even those tutored, so to speak, in the School of Redd, hang a kind of special value and affection upon the hitching post that is 1960’s The Music from “The Connection” made for Blue Note. The LP is a kind of conceptual soundtrack for Jack Gelber’s play from the previous year about a writer and producer aiming to put on a work of intense societal realism with real addicts as the characters — some of them being jazz musicians.

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 23 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 short list 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 of 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. Nineteen-sixties 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) 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 enjoy 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 visited in order to cut their latest disc, but Redd was particularly 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. 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 as “the star.” 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 entered 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 Yankees 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 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 and if he could swing by. 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, and more rehearsal. 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.

Redd knew he had a clutch of tunes that were special. Brooks was a crafty and idiosyncratic writer himself and played like one, and McLean’s compositional chops were beyond obvious — he’s one of the leading New Thing composers of the 1960s, arguably even more consequential with the pen than the horn. But this is Redd’s compositional show, and what a show it is. We have seven cuts, starting with “The Thespian,” McLean and Brooks rocking the song as if it were a cradle between two chords. From there, Redd paints, with the band adding additional strokes — Hayes’ hi-hat, Chambers’ off-beats — so that the rocking becomes a fugato dance, before bass and drums bust out in a high-stepping groove while the horns double down with new rhythmic energy. Redd starts off doing a lot with a little, and you realize how he was more likely doing a lot with a lot all along.

As a pianist, his moments of “My goodness, man, listen to you go!” come most readily when he isn’t soloing. Pete Townshend was that way as a guitarist, and the approach is Redd’s bag as well. “Blues Blues Blues” — a title in triplicate that is akin to a good-natured boast for the harmonic propulsion which is about to be brought — twists and turns like some mash-up of the post-punk band Magazine and Charles Mingus. The confidence is indelible and addictive. The alto-tenor dual horn set-up can be unwieldy in theory (with too much “top”), but McLean and Brooks make their claim as this being the definitive stamp on how well the approach may work. They don’t so much as try to out-swing each other as create separate grooves which interlock after-the-fact, when the last notes are played and we regard them in their retroactive totality.

“Just a Ballad for My Baby” is one of those cuts where you know the “just” is really code for minds are about to be blown. We’d probably call this a “humble brag” today, but instead let’s salute the ability to keep the tongue in the cheek when one — and one’s band — has goods that others don’t have. The song opens like a post-bop sunrise, spangling the horizon, part pastoral, part city scene. I’m reminded of those occasions when the English “peasant poet” of the countryside, John Clare, came to London. McLean plays with tones of susurration, Brooks with tones of sibilance — there’s a difference. When their lines overlap, we have what can be termed a lovers’ embrace, both intimate and presented for the heightening of our own senses. Elemental coloration, Redd-style.

People will say that so and so is a writer’s writer, and what that normally means to me is they’re not very good. They don’t connect. A lack of opportunity for that connection is commonly cited, but I think they could be provided with any sized platform, and the work wouldn’t have legs because the work is about devices that other writers, who speak about “craft,” employ or will now employ. The thread count matters a lot more than how warming the fabric actually is. We have to be careful not to let a musician like Freddie Redd slip away into this brand of palavering. “He was a musician’s musician.” Eh, yes and no. If you were a jazz musician, you noticed him, tried to understand what he was doing as a writer and player, studied a disc such as Shades of Redd to better process how he tailored a band to his vision, while simultaneously abetting this diverse group of individuals and their individualistic talents. But you were also floored — you wanted to reach Redd’s expanses.

The record feels like a sociological experiment that works — these people are put together to live and build a community, and the community they create is of paradigmatic design and soulful emotion worthy of soulful celebration and soulful study, which seems like an oxymoron and not a thing, but is very much a Freddie Redd thing. He’s a listener’s musician, one might better say, and his color as such is the totality of that particular spectrum. He is not one-size-fits-all, but the whole of much seems to fit within what he is doing at his best and here on one of the finest records of the jazz medium. A jazz as wide as the weather, as elemental as the weather, but as specific as an August rainstorm cooling the ground the day has spent heating. •


colin fleming’s most recent books are an entry in the .33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke's Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963; a volume about 1951's Scrooge as the ultimate horror film; and a work of fiction called If You [ ]: Fabula, Fantasy, F**kery, Hope. He's the author of the comic novel Meatheads Say the Realest Things. His fiction appears in Harper's, Commentary, Virginia Quarterly Review, Salmagundi, and Boulevard, with his writings on art, film, music, literature, and sports running in The Atlantic, Salon, Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, and JazzTimes. His op-eds feature in USA Today, New York Daily News, The New York Times, LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He's a regular radio guest and maintains the voluminous Many Moments More blog on his website, which ranges in its explorations from ballet to film to sports to literature to music to art to nature to unique workout routines in historical structures while exposing the corruption and discrimination — and plain bad writing — rampant in publishing, and documenting what it truly means to endure and grow. Sometimes there are posts on Twitter @colinfleminglit.