American saxophonist Joshua Redman’s relationship with Christian McBride goes back 20 years, when Redman sought out the bassist in New York, soon after graduating from Harvard. They formed a fertile creative partnership, but here, both men seemed somewhat surprised that this was their first gig together for five years, and only their second in this format.
Duets leave little room for manoeuvre and, in the revealing acoustics of the Wigmore Hall, no room for error. With nerves a-jangle and each pitch and nuance laid bare, the temptation to overplay is strong. Both Redman and McBride pack a hefty punch, but at this concert, the emphasis was more on clarity and control, fine detail and the careful construction of emotional highs. It was an enormous pleasure just to hear Christian McBride walk through the common-stock cadences of jazz tradition, let alone the mighty strums and super-fast be-bop that came down the line.
Each musician comes with an extensive knowledge of lineage and style. They opened with the sly theme and soul-jazz vamp of Ray Bryant’s “Chicken and Dumplings” and chose “On the Sunny Side of the Street” as their encore. They took in modern blues, an early funk classic, Eddie Harris’s “Cold Duck Time” and added a slow and sensuous ballad, “Easy Living”. And mid-set, they captured the full force of Dizzy Gillespie’s Afro-Cuban big-band classic “Manteca” with overlapping beats and muscular lines. Extra riffs, sudden harmonies and short unison bursts added spice, while Redman’s development, for all the playful references and high-note virtuosity, had an iron logic that stayed in focus throughout the long single set.
The covers were accessible, buoyant and contemporary but they were crowned by three centrepiece originals that brought out to the full the two musicians’ dexterity, touch and tone. McBride’s airy “Singing on a Cloud” featured figured bass and set up a final cascade of rhythmically articulated Redman triplets. “Malcolm” came with a spiritual theme, menacing strums and a climax of compressed, upward sweeping scales. The highlight was Redman’s soprano sax homage to his mother, Renée Shedroff. It moved from a long extended note to a lyrical theme, developed abstract smears and tumbled in steps, gathered speed, then faded over a simple McBride thrum.