The recording went ahead as planned, only with Oliver Lake's sympathetic and incendiary alto saxophone in place of Redman's blustery, knowing tenor. Oliver Lake is the perfect choice for this project. Though typically associated with small ensembles, Lake has extensive big band experience, having led and recorded big band music since the mid-1980s. Like Redman, Lake's huge reputation as an avant-gardist overshadows his profound and intimate association with blues, African-American folk music, and mainstream jazz.
Most of "Farewell..." is comprised of Redman's better-known compositions, plus a new original piece by Masters ('Sitatunga'), a standard ('My One and Only Love') which, to my knowledge, Redman never recorded, and a pair of riveting spontaneous quartet improvisations featuring Lake, trumpeter Tim Hagans, drummer Peter Erskine, and bassist Dave Carpenter. The bulk of the Redman-penned material originates from his ECM recording "The Struggle Continues," and from his first two recordings as a leader; "Coincide" and "Ear of the Behearer" (both on the Impulse! label). 'Dewey's Tune,' from the first "Old and New Dreams" recording starts these proceedings off with a lithe, Ornette-inspired ride, followed by 'I-Pimp' (previously documented on Ed Schuller's great "Mu Point" CD). Masters' arrangement of the latter's offhand, laconic, Monk-like melody is pitch-perfect, launching a string of remarkable solos by Lake, Hagans, and trombonist Dave Woodley.
Lake's blues virtuosity comes to the fore quite frequently on "Farewell..." most notably on 'Boody,' a simmering slow burn loaded with suggestive curves and brassy stabs. Erskine's chattering cowbell and tom-tom ride prods Lake to again reach deep into a gutbucket bag on the relentlessly funky 'Le Clit,' a piece which actually starts with some of the most abstract, pensive playing on the entire CD - an alto saxophone duet between Lake and the venerable Gary Foster. Lake's alto is achingly beautiful on 'My One and Only Love.' Here, the sense that Lake is playing for Redman, as Matt Wilson mentions in the CD's liners, is most palpable. The CD's other ballad, Redman's own 'Joie de Vivre,' is just as lush and sweet, illumined by more remarkable soloing from Lake and Foster, and Masters' airily impressionistic, hands-off arrangement. After another ballad-like piece, 'Love Is,' the band returns to boppish, Ornette-inspired material with "Thren," perhaps Redman's most immediately recognizable composition. I especially enjoyed way the solos by Woodley, Lake, and Hagans overlapped amongst the muttering horn section, Carpenter's ruminating bass, and Erskine's clattering, pushy drums.
Like Mark Masters' 2006 tribute to Gary McFarland, Farewell Walter Dewey Redman truly manifests the depth and breadth of its subject's musical vision. Like the McFarland tribute, "Farewell..." is also one of the best listening experiences I've had all year. The intelligence and thoughtfulness of Masters' arrangements is matched by their soulfulness, and by the consistently spine tingling improvisations of Lake, Hagans, pianist Cecilia Coleman, and the rest of the soloists here. The ensemble playing is similarly inspired - you don't get the impression that this is merely a well-oiled, well-rehearsed big band. Instead, it seems more like a group of accomplished individuals who love to play this music. Despite the rather somber circumstances behind this CD's creation, it is a smile-inducing treat from start to finish. I don't think Dewey Redman would have wanted it any other way!