Joshua Redman's recent albums veer from amiable straight-ahead jazz to a challenging project combining two rhythm sections. The tenor saxophonist's new group, James Farm, falls somewhere between these poles. The quartet opened its inaugural tour Thursday night at Chris' Jazz Cafe in Center City.
The name James originated from the first letter of each member's first name; the group debuted in July at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, although the musicians were hardly strangers. Pianist Aaron Parks' album Invisible Cinema (2008) features James Farm's rhythm section of drummer Eric Harland and bassist Matt Penman. Redman similarly performed with both in SFJazz Collective, a high-profile octet for which he formerly served as artistic director.
During the first set, the quartet breezed through seven tunes in a little over an hour. Apart from John Lewis' "Milestones," the repertoire featured original material from varied sources.
Redman also evoked an era preceding sophistication and abstraction in jazz, when the music captured a wider spectrum of listeners. This isn't surprising. Redman has performed with the Dave Matthews Band, Yo-Yo Ma, and String Cheese Incident, and has used electronic effects to make his horn echo or sound like a small saxophone section. Perhaps such experience has broadened Redman's range and appeal.
Broad appeal seemed to be the goal at Chris' Jazz Cafe. Redman's "Polliwog" featured a groove that bordered on rock music. Harland overplayed effectively, while Penman contributed simple riffs or root notes in tandem with Parks' chords. Redman gained intensity with each chorus; he seasoned his bright tone with a hint of blues. By contrast, the group's rubato reading of Penman's ballad "Low Fives" was closer in spirit to collective improvisation, the other instruments swirling around Redman's horn.
The group closed out the set with Parks' "Harvesting Dance," which suggested Middle Eastern and South American influences; it alternated between celebration and introspection. Redman's solo, not surprisingly, fed off the former. After the band finished, Redman fidgeted with a cell phone before acknowledging the applause. "Thanks," he said abruptly, an offhand finale to an exuberant performance.