The appropriately-titled Walking Shadows is Redman’s latest, a quartet album with an orchestra ensemble. Produced by pianist/genius Brad Mehldau, the album, Redman’s fourth album for Nonesuch as a leader, also features prolific jazz bassist Larry Grenadier, frequent collaborator Brian Blade on drums, and composer/publisher Dan Coleman as the orchestral conductor. The album certainly sounds like the clean, tight, sophisticated product of an all-star cast such as this one. It consists of 12 ballads (most of which aren’t original compositions) from which you would get exactly what you’d expect: energetic instrumentation with few wildcards. But you haven’t come to Walking Shadows expecting to be surprised or challenged; you’ve come to hear some of the world’s best musicians play and only really tinker with songs with which you’re inseparably familiar.
While perhaps not as brilliant as 2009’s Compass, Walking Shadows provides skilled interpretations of compositions by a wide variety of artists, from Wayne Shorter to Bach to The Beatles. There would be risk in taking on such big names if such songs, now standards, hadn’t been done seemingly a million times before (or if this group wasn’t as good at their craft as they are). Yet, Walking Shadows is probably the best contemporary interpretation of these songs you’ll hear.
That’s not to say that the interpretations on Redman’s latest are entirely faithful: they contain enough improvisation and written breakdowns to differ from their respective inspirations. This isn’t surprising; what good is covering The Beatles if you’re going to essentially simply adapt it to other instruments? So Let it Be, for instance, starts out as a by-the-numbers take on The Beatles classic, but ventures into a contemporary, borderline avant-garde track that seems to want to break out into funk, until it eventually slinks back to the original sound, Redman’s tenor taking the lead. Meanwhile, Redman’s take on Bach’s Adagio features minimal drums and mostly bass, resulting in a sound that’s beautiful, familiar, yet originally minimal. And opener The Folks Who Live On The Hill features smooth saxophone from Redman and cinematic strings from Coleman; the song is only really a surprise considering that Redman’s way smoother on The Folks Who Live On The Hill than on anything else he’s ever done.
In contrast, the most surprising track on Walking Shadows is Lush Life, a Billy Strayhorn composition whose interpretation by Redman is a journey rather than a lush standstill. Beginning with haunting string arrangements from Patrick Zimmerli, Redman’s saxophone ultimately gives way to a refreshingly simple drumbeat (that’s practically in 4/4 time) and to Mehldau’s stunning, Radiohead-like piano.
Overall, even for those who don’t like avant-garde or contemporary jazz, Walking Shadows is, in comparison to some of today’s drummer-heavy jazz, a delicately simple, gorgeous, tasteful album of standards, covers, and original material. Those whose favorite jazz album of last year was, say, Wadada Leo Smith’s mammoth Ten Freedom Summers, might not enjoy Walking Shadows because it, in contrast to other headier listens, invites the listener in rather than guiding him through a challenging story. As long as you come in solely expecting to be treated to top-notch instrumentation and heartened by the (sometimes-vague) familiarity of your favorite tunes, Walking Shadows will prove to be one of the year’s most satisfying jazz listens. Otherwise, why are you even reading this? Go listen to Colin Stetson. He’s really good, too.