This is Joshua Redman’s “ballads with strings” record, a venerable tradition that most includes such torrid beboppers as Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown. It continues Redman’s recent penchant for putting himself in new settings — his membership in the egalitarian ensemble James Farm and the knotty skronk he’s delivered guesting with The Bad Plus are other examples — but on Walking Shadows he allows himself the security blanket of deploying sidemen. It isn’t easy to come up with three more acutely creative jazz balladeers than the other members of his core quartet — pianist (and album producer) Brad Mehldau, drummer Brian Blade and bassist Larry Grenadier. Their low-key sensitivity is a secret ingredient here.
The material is a diverse but simpatico mix of American songbook standards, pop hits and group originals. Redman plays with gorgeous aplomb on Kern and Hammerstein’s “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” (the latter also features Mehldau’s best solo). He teases out the familiar melodies of The Beatles’ “Let It Be” and “Stop That Train” by John Mayer before taking transformative liberties with them via deft improvisations. The most arresting of the originals is Redman’s atmospheric “Final Hour,” in which his tenor has the low-toned plangency of a bass clarinet.
The presence of the strings — conducted by Dan Coleman, who also arranged them along with Mehldau and Patrick Zimmerli — varies significantly from song to song. Ironically, Bach’s “Adagio,” featuring a sublime Grenadier bass riff, is among the least ornamented offerings, while on the ’30s standard “Easy Living” and the intro to Mehldau’s “Last Glimpse of Gotham,” they’re more integral to the song than Redman’s sax; Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” is a compelling but messy pastiche. Nothing here is trite or bathetic however — no mean feat for jazz-with-strings endeavors. Walking Shadows is another colorful plume in Redman’s steadily adventurous career.