Joshua Redman is offering a nod — and that’s pretty much all it is — to Sonny Rollins’ pianoless trio that recorded “Way Out West” 50 years ago, employing a similar setup, sharing two tunes with the Rollins effort and using his own compositions as the foundations for invigorating and precise improvisations. Opening set at Catalina for Redman and one of the three rhythm sections that appear on his brilliant “Back East” (Nonesuch) was a thriller, a master class in communication and execution.
Evening opened with Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” and Redman executed the theme with some cute stops and starts before trotting into bebop territory. Redman structured his solo, however, to go hand in hand with the song’s gleeful spirit and hopefulness, a tack he took later on with “I’m an Old Cowhand,” which segued into a dense and lulling reading of Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” He drew on Middle Eastern tones and the soprano sax’s human voice-like characteristics on his most linear composition, “Zarafah”; elsewhere, he pushed himself and his band into whirlwinds and torrents that were as natural as the tender moments.
Redman arrived in a blaze of glory in 1992, and at the old Catalina’s on Cahuenga, Redman lived up to the hype. This is a wildly different undertaking — as have been his larger ensemble outings with the SF Jazz Collective — but Redman possesses that rare ability to simultaneously work two rails: One connects him with the other musicians, the other connects the group with the audience. It’s not that he plays without precedent — conjure the imaginary album “Coltrane Plays Getz” for something of a picture — but his playing is following a path that he, and he alone, has set.
Redman is adventurous without all the squeals and squawks of other players, adept at writing both lyrically and rhythmically, and he knows when the twain should part, creating an episode of engaging storytelling on one tune, circling the head of the tune with just four or five notes immediately after.
Drummer Eric Harland takes charge of this unit with some stunning stick work that alternates between supporting Redman’s excursions and adding a blare of rambunctiousness to partner with the saxophonist’s flurries. Redman, at times, pushes his sax into the piano’s role, but bassist Reuben Rogers is more regularly called upon to prop up the song; they all rely on a sixth sense to know where the others are going.
Redman will perform Wednesday at Town Hall on a double bill with Branford Marsalis.