Joshua Redman Sings His Song
The saxophonist conquers the ever-daunting orchestral ballads album
Joshua Redman has unleashed his inner crooner. He’s possessed a conspicuously beautiful tone ever since his triumph at the 1991 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition ushered him onto the national stage—a sound coupled with a gift for cogent, finely sculpted solos. But on his new Nonesuch album, Walking Shadows, Redman is singing through his horn with an emotionally trenchant lyricism unlike anything he’s recorded before.
A sumptuous ballads session that seamlessly weaves together a disparate program ranging from John Mayer, Bach and Billy Strayhorn to Wayne Shorter, Kern and Hammerstein, and Lennon and McCartney, Walking Shadows reunites Redman with his trusted longtime compatriots Larry Grenadier (bass), Brian Blade (drums) and Brad Mehldau (piano), who also produced the project. While only half of the album’s 12 tracks feature string arrangements (contributed by Mehldau, Patrick Zimmerli and Dan Coleman, who conducted the orchestra), the expanded instrumentation sets the album’s general mood.
The overall effect isn’t exactly cinematic, though Mehldau’s chart for his heartbreaking “Last Glimpse of Gotham” does feel like the denouement of an Otto Preminger film noir. Rather, Walking Shadows unfolds like a dramatically taut song cycle, despite the fact that Redman pointedly includes several pieces unlikely to be mistaken for songs. Most striking is the tenor, bass and drums arrangement of Bach’s “Adagio,” a piece Redman played numerous times while touring with Norway’s Trondheim Jazz Orchestra.
That “tune” haunted him after every gig. “[I] couldn’t get the long progression of the melody and harmony out of my head,” says Redman, 44, during a leisurely morning interview at his favorite café near his home in Berkeley, Calif. “There’s something about the poignancy and melancholy of the melody, and the way the melody and harmony make this slow inevitable march to the conclusion, that just stuck with me.”
Coleman’s dreamy orchestral arrangement of “Infant Eyes,” the only piece featuring Redman on soprano sax, makes it another track that feels too intricate and mysterious to pass as a song. Inspired by Wayne Shorter’s original version on Speak No Evil, Coleman conceived of the piece as a reimagining of what “that historic band would sound like if they had a string orchestra behind them.” Redman also contributes two originals, “Final Hour,” a brief, brooding duo with Mehldau, and the doleful closer, “Let Me Down Easy,” which he composed for actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman show of the same name.
Ultimately he was determined that Walking Shadows take shape as more than a collection of lovely tunes. “I wanted each song to tell a story and the whole album to tell a story,” Redman says. He acknowledges there’s something anachronistic about making albums this way in an iPod shuffle age. “When’s the last time I listened to a record beginning to end? It’s been a while,” he says. “But as long as I’m making albums, that’s my model.”
Whether interpreting Bach or Blonde Redhead’s sultry “Doll Is Mine,” Redman approached the material like a singer who paid dues with a swinging big band. The pre-production training was technical, emotional and idiomatic, and he threw himself into it with more than his usual diligence. In some ways he had to rewire his inner soundtrack, which leans heavily on soul stars like Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder. “In preparation for this I listened a lot to classic jazz vocalists: Ella, Sarah, Nat Cole, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong,” Redman says. “I spent a lot of time just putting iTunes on random on Sarah Vaughan and letting it wash over me. Although stylistically we cover a wide territory, I always conceived of this as a jazz ballad album, whatever that means.”
In immersing himself in jazz vocals, he translated some singing techniques onto the horn. “I realize this might seem like Saxophone 101 to a lot of players, but I realized that we almost always bend up into notes,” he explains. “Listening to these recordings, I realized vocalists come down to notes. I tried to do it and realized I couldn’t, so I shedded on that. Just the process of listening to vocalists and trying to mimic their phrasing on the saxophone opened up a whole expressive range.”
Originally published in June 2013