Pianist Freddie Redd was one of the more mercurial characters on the Big Apple jazz scene of the late ’50s and early ’60s, darting around the edges of both the hard bop scene and the avant-garde theatrical realm — and forging a powerful bond between the two by scoring Jack Gelber’s 1959 heroin addiction allegory “The Connection.”
Like many of his contemporaries, the septuagenarian pianist virtually disappeared from the public eye for a lengthy spell, emerging for occasional low-profile gigs in his adopted Los Angeles. But thanks in part to a 2005 Blue Note reissue of “The Connection,” interest in Redd’s work began building again — leading to this touted one-night Gotham stand focused on its songs.
Before tackling that group of emotionally daunting pieces, Redd offered something of a breezy palate cleanser — in the form of a spry set anchored by guest saxophonist Lou Donaldson. While Redd vamped with a wink and a nod, the ever-irascible reedman veered took the reins, blowing with a fleet ferocity that belied his stationary stance and peppering the aud with anecdotes about Miles Davis “when he still played jazz” (as an intro to “Bye Bye Blackbird”) and more Viagra jokes than the staid hall had likely hosted before.
Redd’s reading of songs from “The Connection” — with Donald Harrison standing in for his original foil, the late Jackie McLean — was just as vivid, albeit emanating from the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. Alternating between Technicolor pieces suggesting a dream-state sense of suspended animation and breathless runs evoking the tension and release of an opiate expedition, Redd played with an engaging delicacy — matched in the soft-spoken onstage interview he granted between sets.
Much of Redd’s playing was couched in a sort of street-corner vernacular, dominated by light, quipping runs that were more akin to shooting the breeze than haranguing passers-by. That style lent an indefatigable brightness to the New Orleans-inflected march “Sister Salvation” and enveloped the self-explanatorily titled “O.D.” in a lightheaded haze that blended darkness and reverie in equal parts.
He’s probably too self-effacing to pursue a full-fledged comeback campaign, but if this first step is any indication, Redd won’t be sliding back into the shadows any time soon.