Tastemaker: Sax roamer keeps jazz at Bay

Since winning the 1991 Thelonious Monk Intl. Saxophone Competition, Joshua Redman has established himself as a formidable presence, whether leading an organ trio, a hard bop quartet or a larger ensemble, like the SFJazz Collective. Such is the providence of a Harvard liberal arts education.

So it’s no surprise that this restless questing attracted the attention of Randell Kline, executive director of SFJazz — the West Coast’s largest nonprofit jazz institution and presenter of the annual San Francisco Jazz Festival — who enlisted Redman to serve as artistic director of its spring season of concerts beginning in 2002.

“The San Francisco Jazz Festival is very different in tone than, say, Montreux or Montreal,” explains Redman. “There, thousands of people descend on a city and take it over like a living organism. In San Francisco, it is a series of primarily weekend events, held at a variety of venues, which allows the listeners to pick and choose like subscribers to a classical program.”

With its jazz-for-jazz’s-sake approach to programming, whether it be during its three-month spring season run or in the fall during the fest’s two-month series of concerts, the showcase has yet to buckle to the market compromises that have watered down other so-called jazz events.

That doesn’t make Redman immune to the pressure of filling seats. Beyond the vibrant, if modest, core of cognoscenti, jazz, for most people, remains daunting. How do you allay audiences’ fears while persuading them to embrace the sound of surprise?

Redman’s response is resolute, even optimistic, in the face of the perennial “jazz is dead” debate: “Of course this music deserves a larger audience. It’s very demanding, very sophisticated. But as long as the musicians are committed, the music will survive.

“Regarding the SFJazz Festival, I don’t deal with commerce; artistic reasons drive everything.

“One of the joys of programming is introducing artists to the public who bring their unique cultural traditions with them,” he adds. “We’ve had the great Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and Hermeto Pascoal from Brazil.”

One recent memorable evening celebrated the juncture of East meets West when saxophone legend Charles Lloyd faced off with Indian tabla master Zakir Hussein.

“Nothing is off limits,” Redman insists. “(Audiences) want to take the journey with us, and that’s what makes this festival special.”

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