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Joshua Redman: Timeless Tales (For Changing Times)

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I happen to know one young woman who buys Joshua Redman discs because she loves his eyes. I know a couple of others who never miss his gigs because they like his moves on stage. The rest of us simply admire his considerable prowess on tenor. Redman has the uncanny ability to straddle Jug and Trane while keeping one eye open toward the entertainment factor. He does so rather seamlessly on Timeless Tales (for Changing Times), his sixth album for Warner Bros.

This is the same ground that trumpeter Nicholas Payton traveled successfully a couple of years ago in modernizing New Orleans standards on Gumbo Nouveau. Here Joshua has chosen to reinterpret familiar works by a host of revered pop songwriters spanning from Tin Pan Alley to (The Artist Formerly Known as) Prince. Partly because he is such a strong player and partly because he is accompanied by such inventive, swinging sidemen as pianist and labelmate Brad Meldhau, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Brian Blade, this “Jazzin’ Up the Pops” project works like a charm.

Together they burn a blue streak through George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” with Joshua sounding a bit like Joe Lovano on this uptempo treatment. Here and several other places throughout the record they conjure up memories of the great John Coltrane Quartet, not so much because Redman mimics the tone or intensity of Trane but because Blade is so obviously and heavily influenced by Elvin Jones. On an intriguing 5/4 rendition of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” Blade switches from Elvinesque mallets on the toms to a subtly sizzling Billy Higgins touch underneath. And he lays down some solid backbeats on a funky version of Prince’s “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore?” which features some of Redman’s greasiest playing on record.

On a lush version of Stevie Wonder’s melancholic “Visions,” Brian gets coloristic with toms and cymbals as Redman delivers some of his most expressive playing. They put a clever, catchy spin on Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays,” treating it with ’70s styled funky attitude. Meldhau plays it in an earthier fashion than his typically obtuse extrapolations at the keyboard. His agile rhythmic sense is often overshadowed by his harmonic ingenuity, but he digs in and dances here.

Even when Joshua puts soprano to his mouth and wanders dangerously close to Kenny G territory on Joni Mitchell’s “I Had a King,” he is saved by Blade’s hip time displacement and Meldhau’s unorthodox voicings, which tweak Redman just enough to bypass the road to sapville. Blade helps jazz up Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” with nimble, swinging cymbal and snare statements while Meldhau makes like a jazzy Glenn Gould on this invention.

A strong frontman aided immensely by a brilliant band.