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An Uncommon 'Riddle': Joshua Redman Covers His Musical Peer

In this promotional image of the band James Farm, Joshua Redman is second from left, and Aaron Parks is to his left.
Jimmy Katz
Nonesuch Records
In this promotional image of the band James Farm, Joshua Redman is second from left, and Aaron Parks is to his left.

In addition to being a very good performance of a very likeable song, this YouTube clip is a very specific and increasingly rare type of cover.

The performers are the Joshua Redman Trio: Reuben Rogers on bass, Gregory Hutchinson on drums, Redman on alto saxophone. (He usually plays tenor or soprano, so this is unusual.) And the tune is "Riddle Me This," by Aaron Parks, who is roughly Redman's contemporary. As you see, Aaron Parks is not on this gig, nor could he, as a pianist, possibly play in the Joshua Redman Trio.

"Riddle Me This" was first recorded on Parks' 2008 album Invisible Cinema. It sounds fairly simple at first listen, but the score is actually quite intricate, with lots of highly specific rhythms, a constantly fluctuating tonal center and a long form that takes nearly two minutes to get through. Redman's version here, recorded Feb. 10, 2012 during a European tour, accomplishes the nifty trick of making the complex sound alive, soulful, foot-tapping, hummable.

You would think that "jazz bandleader calls a tune by his or her contemporary" is a fairly common occurrence. Jazz musicians' careers depend on playing in each others' bands — and, by extension, playing each others' tunes. It certainly happened in the past, in a way that's inscribed Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Wayne Shorter tunes into standard repertoire.

But oddly enough, it isn't today. That's the subject of a recent post by Angelika Beener on her blog Alternate Takes:

I then started focusing on today, and my experiences at jazz performances. Yes, the headliner is playing his or her original work, and yes the band, on some occasions, may feature a tune or two from a bandmate, but what were the odds that they would play a tune by a musical peer beyond their own band? Slim to none, as far as I could tell.

Beener interviews a few musicians for reasons why so few modern compositions have become jazz standard repertoire: lack of current tunes in fake books, the permanence of older standards, the ease of making and recording original music, the perceived need to "do your own thing," the relative difficulty of modern compositions, the lack of new standards within wider popular culture, the fracturing of the modern jazz scene into subcommunities, etc. All told, it's amazing that jazz performers cover their contemporaries at all.

And yet, Redman does it here.

Now, Redman and Parks aren't strangers. Parks is over a dozen years younger, but the two have collaborated fairly extensively in the collective band James Farm. We know that Redman didn't have to transcribe this tune from a record without any guidance — Parks made lead sheets for this tune, and even made them publicly available.

Still, it's the sort of thing which warms the heart a little: A great composition recognized by a great, well-known performer. It keeps alive the faint hope that some body of modern standard repertoire may eventually coalesce in a sort of organic consensus.

Perhaps Redman's trio will eventually record this for an album, disseminating it further into the public consciousness. But if you're trying to monitor the response to a catchy jazz tune in real time, YouTube can serve as an echo chamber in the form of student or relatively unknown bands covering a tune, then posting their recordings. For example, here is a student ensemble doing "Riddle Me This," with a vocal arrangement. A few other tunes from Invisible Cinema are actually more popular among the student set. In particular, "Nemesis," a fetching rocker in 7/4, is covered a bunch of times.

As much as young groups make for a nice gauge of popular reception, what could actually make modern jazz tunes catch on as standard repertoire is high-level performances. "Nemesis" may stick — the much-loved guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel has notably been known to play it with Parks in the piano chair. And I maintain that this video of "Riddle Me This" documents a very good performance too. Redman has a way of conjuring up greasy, gritty cries from his horn; sometimes I personally find it distracting, but here I think he metes it out just right. Reuben Rogers sounds supremely confident weaving around the many chord changes even though he appears to be reading sheet music. And Greg Hutchinson builds textures so well — note how he starts by drumming with bare hands, then works up to that funky and snappy beat with sticks.

Apparently, I'm not the only one who thought highly of this. At this performance in Oslo, Norway, two different people were moved to bootleg video of the same song and later post it to YouTube. (I'm assuming they were acting independently, judging by the "I got the same one that you did!" comment one left on the other's upload.) This second version has better video, but distorted audio. Two days later in Stockholm, Sweden, yet another audience member grabbed video of the same band doing the same tune.

So riddle me this: Are there any other good examples you can think of where a jazz musician covers a contemporary who isn't in his or her band?

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