The ‘white heat’ and vulnerability of improvisational jazz

December 6, 2016 at 6:15 PM EDT
What is improvisational jazz all about? Saxophonist Joshua Redman and pianist Brad Mehldau agree that the answer is vulnerability. Their musical genre requires players to follow one another’s lead -- often letting another performer dictate the musical conversation. Jeffrey Brown sits down with Redman and Mehldau to discuss emotion in their art and why "it's a great time to be a jazz musician."

HARI SREENIVASAN: Next: how a passion for improvisation can make beautiful music.

Two jazz stalwarts rejoin forces for a new album and a series of concerts.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: The song, Hoagy Carmichael’s 1938 ballad “The Nearness of You,” performed as a kind of conversation between two master musicians who happen to be peers and friends: saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Brad Mehldau.

BRAD MEHLDAU, Pianist: If you’re going to play a ballad with someone, and you want it to be anything deeper than this just sort of surface, you’re going to have to be vulnerable for the other person. And that’s what the audience wants to see, too.

JOSHUA REDMAN, Saxophonist: Yes. Jazz is all about vulnerability.

BRAD MEHLDAU: So, you got to…

JEFFREY BROWN: Vulnerability?



JOSHUA REDMAN: I think so, yes, because we’re improvising, you know? And we’re not coming to the bandstand with a preconceived notion of what we’re going to play.

We have to be open and available and vulnerable to really make that connection with ourselves and with the other musician.

JEFFREY BROWN: Redman, 47, and Mehldau, 46, have been filling concert halls and jazz clubs, on their own, as band leaders, and together, for more than 20 years.

This fall, they have joined forces again in a recent performance at New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center, and on a newly-released album titled “Nearness,” a mix of original material and jazz standards recorded live on tour in 2011.

JOSHUA REDMAN: I feel so fortunate to be able to make the music that I believe in, and to get up there every night and just play from the soul and go for it.

BRAD MEHLDAU: As an improvising musician, I really feel committed to not going out there and playing some nonsense for people, you know?


BRAD MEHLDAU: There’s a bit of a script. We have some plan, but what they want to hear is, they really want to hear us try to be creative.

JEFFREY BROWN: Both men came to music early. Redman, in California, was raised by his dancer mother, and is the son of well-known saxophonist Dewey Redman, Mehldau in Florida and Connecticut in a family home never without a piano.

They arrived separately in New York in the early 1990s, where each found his own early success.

We spoke recently at the Steinway Piano Showroom in Manhattan just before a concert.

BRAD MEHLDAU: Even when I’m ostensibly accompanying him, and he’s ostensibly taking the solo, we’re still having this conversation. So it may mean, for instance, that he plays a melodic idea, and then I respond to it sort of in real time, and I might even give him something back, that then he responds to again.

JOSHUA REDMAN: I’m always looking for something.

BRAD MEHLDAU: And he’s kind of waiting for it. He’s like, come on, what do you got?


JEFFREY BROWN: What do you got?


JOSHUA REDMAN: Well, and often because I don’t have anything.


JOSHUA REDMAN: I always feel like I’m — as an improviser. I feel a little hamstrung by this instrument and its role in jazz, because it’s basically a soloist instrument.

I play melodies, maybe some accompanying harmonies if there’s another horn player, and then I will take a solo, and then I have to go stand at the side of the stage. You know, I have rhythm section envy because they get to, like, be in there, and always — you know, they’re always listening, always reacting.

But I feel like my best ideas often don’t come from me. They come from the other musicians that I’m playing with, and especially when I’m playing with someone like Brad.

JEFFREY BROWN: I asked for a demonstration, and the two launched into some blues.

BRAD MEHLDAU: One thing that Josh does that’s very exciting for me, as an accompanist, is that I throw him a curve in the middle of his phrase.

So, he was starting to start a phrase that was a little more conventional. And he was going to kind of wrap it up, OK, we gave you an illustration, by returning to the melody. And then I — in the middle of that phrase, I sort of went — and I harmonically went off the chart of what would be the normal harmony there in this 12-bar blues we’re playing.

In real time, somehow, he heard me doing that and adjusted his phrase in the middle of the phrase.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that an intellectual process that he just described, where he switches and you have to react quickly, or it just happens?

JOSHUA REDMAN: That’s an excellent question. Whatever it is, if I feel like it’s an intellectual process, then I’m not successful.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s not going to work.

JOSHUA REDMAN: It’s an emotional, it’s an intuitive process. I mean, of course it’s happening in the brain, right, but if I’m thinking about responding in that way, then I’m overthinking it, and I probably won’t do it well.

BRAD MEHLDAU: It’s very exciting to really improvise, and to have that moment. And it’s also very social music. A lot of times, you’re with other people. And to have that white-heat kind of communication between another musician, it’s very — it’s pretty exciting.

JOSHUA REDMAN: It’s a great time to be a jazz musician.

JEFFREY BROWN: After our talk, Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau set off on a European tour, and the two continue to perform their separate gigs.

From New York, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: After Jeff’s interview, Redman and Mehldau played a song from the new album just for us.

You can see that private performance in its entirety on our Web site,