Walking Shadows finds jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman taking on a new challenge, incorporating an orchestra and string arrangements into his music with the help of pianist/producer Brad Mehldau.
Strings are no stranger to jazz but the results have been uneven as the presence of an orchestra often mellows the music to uninspired, bland schmaltz. The approach often pushes the music towards superficial beauty rather rich and compelling. There's nothing wrong with pretty, but shallow music is rarely rewarding.
It is fortunate Redman and Mehldau, joined by bassist Larry Grenadier and Brian Blade, avoid these pitfalls for the majority of Shadows. Even with a reliance on ballads and slower tempos, the arrangements and performances yield music that is dignified, substantive, interesting, and yes, pretty.
Two original compositions -- Redman's "Final Hour" and Mehldau's "Last Glimpse Of Gotham" -- are among the strongest moments on the record. Both have a sense of foreboding as the titles suggest. "Final Hour" forgoes the strings nor does it offer hot improvisation or dazzling solos. It focuses instead on the interplay between Redman and Mehldau. The saxophone is tender and weeping while the piano is contemplative and reflective. It is brief, simple, spare, satisfying, and beautiful.
The strings return on "Gotham," shading the sound with melancholy overtones. Mehldau creates a dramatic tension building towards the sense of finality referenced in the title with the use of tubular bells beneath Redman's impassioned yet restrained saxophone. There is a sense of motion in the music reaching for resolution and climax, that final glimpse, but the song concludes with a question mark rather than a period or exclamation point.
I can no longer say I don't like anything by John Mayer and that would be very disappointing for me were this adaptation of "Stop This Train" not so damn lovely. Redman's saxophone, playing what I imagine is the vocal line of the original, sounds nothing like Dave Matthews (oops, I mean Mayer) nor will you find any copped Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar licks. Mehldau's piano is graceful in support and Blade provides the train-like rhythm in his drumming.
The album isn't free from maudlin moments of mush and there are times when the genteel becomes drowsy but overall this is a compelling, beautiful, thoughtful record that keeps listeners engaged. Redman and Mehldau are a winning combination and the proof is evident throughout Walking Shadows.