High art from Joshua Redman and Muhal Richard Abrams at Orchestra Hall

Can contemporary jazz improvisation be both challenging and accessible? Smart and attractive? Ultra-sophisticated and thoroughly comprehensible?

The answers were decidedly affirmative on Friday night in Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, where tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman played a deeply satisfying set that never pandered to popular tastes yet drew warm ovations nonetheless.

Leading his taut quartet in mostly original work, Redman reaffirmed several facets of his art: the translucence of his tone, the intricacies of his phrase-making and the appealing idiosyncrasies of his compositional style. Yet no matter how complex the music-making became, Redman projected it with dramatic force, bringing rhetorical flourish to even the most rarefied ideas, no small feat.

He opened with the serene, solo passages of his "Final Hour," from his newest album, "Walking Shadows." The equanimity of his tone, plus its utter lack of vibrato, showed the remarkable control he brings to the tenor saxophone and set the stage for the hard swing eruptions of his "Leap of Faith." In that work, Redman indicated his conversance with classic bebop phraseology, the man letting one fast-flying line careen into the next.

Yet here, and elsewhere in this set, Redman reminded listeners that it's possible to build a sense of climax without resorting to noise or ostentation. He achieved the effect simply by quickening rhythms and intensifying the profusion of his ideas.

It probably has been a while since a jazz artist – or anyone else – played music of the band Blonde Redhead at Symphony Center, but what was notable here was what Redman did with it. Essentially, he mined the blues undercurrents of "Doll is Mine," his lamenting lines cast against a solemn, dirge-like backdrop from drummer Gregory Hutchinson and bassist Reuben Rogers. The latter's solo was as rich in content as it was in tone, Rogers expressing profound thoughts with a few well-chosen notes.

If pianist Aaron Goldberg's "Shed" inspired relentless drive from the composer, it drew from Redman unexpected silences and stop-start motifs. But that tendency to toy with rhythm and sabotage meter marks much of Redman's playing, the saxophonist never content to ride a comfortable backbeat.

He proved the point even in his "Curly Q," a blues-swinger with plenty of forward motion from drummer Hutchinson and counterpunch from Redman. The saxophonist took every opportunity to play against the band's prevailing rhythmic currents, emphasizing offbeats at every turn and, therefore, bringing palpable tension to the proceedings.

Some of the most profound music of the evening unfolded in an "Adagio" by J.S. Bach. Redman, bassist Rogers and drummer Hutchinson conveyed an austere beauty in this music, the saxophonist's spare lines floating above a soft-and-steady accompaniment. Brave is the jazz musician who dares to invest so much emotion in so few gestures.

The dramatic high point came last, in Redman's "I'll Go Mine," a tour de force of impetuous rhythm and cascading climaxes. Even here, however, Redman's biggest gestures never became bombastic. This piece, and the rest of the set, were all about substance rather than flash, a sure indication of the respect the saxophonist showed his audience.

The evening opened with the revered composer-pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, a co-founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), playing solo. A forward thinker from the earliest days of his career in Chicago, Abrams – who long has lived in New York – always has transcended boundaries of style and idiom, and he did so again this time.

In a nearly 30-minute soliloquy, Abrams ranged from intimate, single-note motifs to vast, orchestral swirls of sound; from tender, lyrical passages to two-fisted clusters of dissonance; from jazz to classical to experimental to you-name-it. This thoroughly abstract playing was not the kind of fare that typically turns up at Symphony Center, and the jazz series programmers deserve a round of applause for daring to present it.

Despite the consistent tonal luster of Abrams' pianism, some listeners may have found his free-flowing improvisations provocative. Bravo for that.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

CHICAGO

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