In the broad-brush history of jazz, the late 1970s is best known as the era of fusion, when major labels favored a mingling of jazz and rock, with mixed results. But there was plenty more going on. Recording for independent, often European labels, jazz artists extended the revolutionary work of the previous decade, enriching concepts like free and experimental jazz with new expressions, textures, and feelings.
One such group was Old and New Dreams, a quartet that made three studio albums on the Black Saint and ECM labels from 1977 to 1980. It was a powerhouse unit, with Don Cherry on trumpet, Dewey Redman on tenor saxophone, Charlie Haden on bass, and Ed Blackwell on drums. All were veterans, some going back to the late 1950s, of Ornette Coleman’s pathbreaking free-jazz groups. Old and New Dreams worked in Coleman’s distinctive musical language: structurally minimalist, with an emphasis on collective improvisation, yet melodic and often hauntingly lyrical.
Old and New Dreams is semi-obscure now, known mainly to jazz nerds or fans of its individual members, the last of whom, Haden, died in 2014. Now a new project, Still Dreaming, has emerged to pick up where the quartet left off. Convened by saxophonist Joshua Redman — Dewey’s son — and featuring bassist Scott Colley, a former student of Haden’s, along with trumpeter Ron Miles and drummer Brian Blade, it is part homage, part fresh exploration.
“I’d like to think of it as an inspiring force but not a limiting force,” says Joshua Redman. “Old and New Dreams, Ornette, that whole world of music, that approach is a point of reference and a point of departure.”
Still Dreaming plays Sunday at the Berklee Performance Center. An all-star unit in its own right, grouping four of today’s major jazz musicians around age 50, the band is a recent project. It came together after Haden’s memorial celebration, in January 2015 at Town Hall in New York City. There, Redman and Colley played in one of the groups that performed in Haden’s honor. And in spoken remarks, Redman celebrated the friendship between his father and Haden, and observed that it helped him connect with his father, who lived in New York while Redman was growing up in the Bay Area.
Afterward, Redman says, he went back and listened closely to Old and New Dreams, and the epiphany for Still Dreaming followed. “Ideas don’t often come to me in this way, and definitely not ideas for a band, but this one came quickly and in complete form,” he says. He knew, too, exactly who he wanted in the band — not just friends and musicians he respected, but ones versed in the original quartet’s approach and feeling.
Colley, in particular, was a natural fit. The bassist was a teenager in Los Angeles when Old and New Dreams made their records, and calls them a major influence. “It was a magnet for me, the language they created through collective improvisation, and the way they could create harmony and melodic structure with no preconceived form,” he says. “Even at that early stage in my playing, I was drawn to that as an improviser.”
Later, Colley studied with Haden at the California Institute of the Arts, picking up elements of Haden’s famous style — warm, rootsy, and empathetic. The two stayed close, and when Haden became ill, Colley sometimes sat in for him in his bands. “In projects of Charlie’s and with Still Dreaming, I’m conscious that I want to approach them my own way, but I’m very aware of where this language comes from,” Colley says. “I’ve listened to it almost my entire musical life.”
These ties give Still Dreaming a level of purpose and intimacy that exceeds the typical jazz supergroup. They also shape its commitment to a particular body of music. Old and New Dreams played Coleman’s compositions, for instance his classic “Lonely Woman,” and added ones of their own, such as Ed Blackwell’s “Togo.” Now, fresh compositions from Redman and Colley join this multigenerational songbook.
The hope, says Redman, is to emulate what Old and New Dreams did best. “They were able to play very free, and at times abstract, thorny music,” he says. “But at the same time there was a folk quality — whether a connection to the blues, or with African music, or with very powerful, simple melodies. Their music had a vulnerability and a poignant lyricism. That balance was something very special.”
Playing in this vein, says Colley, requires close listening to one another in the moment. “It’s very open in a way, anything can happen; but everyone is thinking very compositionally, always. It’s the ability to truly have a conversation where you’re really immersed in what the other person is saying, and yet have something to say yourself. It’s four equal parts when we’re playing together.”
Still Dreaming has yet to record an album; Redman says they plan to get in the studio as soon as each member’s busy schedule allows. Far from a tribute band, he sees the group as an ongoing creative vehicle. “It’s not our mission to go back and rediscover some Golden Age,” he says. “I’m hoping this is a band that has a lot of future ahead.”
With Joshua Redman, Ron Miles, Scott Colley, Brian Blade
At Berklee Performance Center, Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $30-$58, 617-876-4275, www.worldmusic.org
Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.