Dewey the tortoise wipes floor with saxophone hares

Perhaps he was out of synch with the world. Perhaps it moved too fast for him. When Dewey Redman first came here 40 years ago with the magical Old and New Dreams he was only 50, yet already had the slo-mo shuffle of an old man. When I interviewed him the next time, in 1986, the promoter, Peter Rechniewski, suggested I take Dewey’s tipple of choice, chardonnay. This, combined with his contemplative speech patterns and frequent chuckling, made our conversation fill the afternoon. His wisdom also filled the room.

Dewey Redman. Photo (and top) Michael Hoefner. :

As a kid Dewey sat for hours on the lawn opposite a juke-joint in Fort Worth, Texas, mesmerised by the music. He wanted to learn trumpet, but his teacher told him his lips were too big. Ever after, when meeting trumpeters, he’d scrutinise their lips…

Instead he was a late starter on tenor saxophone. He’d been in the same school marching band as free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, and two decades later, in 1968, he joined Ornette’s band in New York – at 37 becoming what he always called “a country boy from Texas trying to make it in the big city”.

He did make it, if not always on his own terms. Like his friend, bassist Charlie Haden, he was in four of jazz’s greatest groups: Coleman’s and Keith Jarrett’s simultaneously, plus the Liberation Music Orchestra and Old and New Dreams. He blazed a trail all his own, including by sometimes singing through his tenor, and by blending a bluesy, Texan soulfulness with elements of the avant-garde, bebop and folk.

Opulence of sound was his god. He told journalist RJ DeLuke, “Technique is okay, but if you got the technique and I got a good sound, I’ll beat you every time. You can play a thousand notes and I can play one note and wipe you out.” That was proven when guitarist Pat Metheny’s 1980 band contained both Dewey and Michael Brecker, the latter considered a singular virtuoso. “But Dewey was definitely dealing,” Metheny observed. “It was pretty wild to see.”

Photo: Jack Vartoogian.

Had Dewey been a boxer, he’d have been known for bouncing back off the canvas. Although music was kind to him, the business was not. Inferior tenor players were routinely pushed ahead of him in the queue for recognition – including his son, Joshua. A fan once hassled Dewey to sign two of his son’s CDs – as Joshua! Long estranged after Dewey broke up with Joshua’s mother, the pair eventually reconciled and played together, with Dewey serenely confident of his superior artistry, if a nudge envious of his son’s material success.

Sometimes Dewey arguably shot himself in the foot, for instance by breaking up Old and New Dreams (with Haden, trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Ed Blackwell). It was because promoters and club owners would only hire him with that band, not his own. This bugged him, and the only solution he could see was a split. “It was a very hard decision, because it was a good band,” he told me. “I starved to death, man, almost. I had the hardest times I’ve ever spent in New York.”

In a bleak January in 1982 Dewey recorded the aptly-named The Struggle Continues with Blackwell, pianist Charles Eubanks and bassist Mark Helias. Charlie Parker’s Dewey Square aside, the pieces were his own. Thren nods to Ornette, Love Is, a voluptuous ballad with a dash of spite, displays Dewey’s sound at its creamiest, and then there’s the dirtiest piece of southern R&B-jazz you’ll ever hear in Roll Over Baby.

To hear him singing through his horn or playing the double-reed suona (which he delighted in calling a musette, and which he favoured on more exotic, eastern-sounding pieces), you have to look elsewhere. But few people have played on more exceptional albums: Coleman’s Science Fiction, the first two Music Liberation Orchestra releases, Keith Jarrett’s Survivors’ Suite and his own astounding Momentum Space with pianist Cecil Taylor and drummer Elvin Jones among them. Dewey died in 2006.

The Struggle Continues streams on Apple Music and Spotify; on disc from Birdland Records.