Joshua Redman's album of ballads definitely has more to it than meets the ear.
A blues guitarist once told me that, when judging the musicianship of others, he always paid close attention to how they finished their notes. This rule of thumb echoed around my brain as I watched two saxophones duke it out late one night at a club in my hometown. They played fast, they played with groove, but their notes were not pure from start to finish. The notes concluded either too raggedly or not at all, shifting all the emphasis to the start of the notes. But saxophonist Joshua Redman is not that kind of musician. Each note is created equally in the eyes of his horn, even the fast ones. And what better way to illustrate this virtue than on an album of ballads?
Joshua Redman and pianist Brad Mehldau have a working relationship that dates back to 1994's Mood Swing (In the liner notes for Metheny Mehldau, guitarist Pat Metheny tells a charming tale of hearing Mehldau's work on Mood Swing, causing him to pull over to the side of the road). Redman has handed the production reins for Walking Shadows to Mehldau, giving it a far different flavor than Redman's past albums. Under the supervision of James Farber (or occasionally Redman himself), Joshua Redman's albums took a more-or-less strict approach to the hard bop saxophone quartet. With Mehldau calling the shots, Walking Shadows unsurprisingly has more in common with a Mehldau album, from the unorthodox choice of covers, through the gentle orchestration, to the arrival of music that is not purely jazz but is genuinely jazzy.
So yes, Walking Shadows does contain orchestrations, and not ones of the atonal, jazzbo variety (When I bought a copy of Wes Montgomery's Down Here on the Ground, the clerk said "I think this has some orchestration. You still want it?"). Less than two seconds into the Kern & Hammerstein opener "The Folks Who Live on the Hill", I get serious flashbacks of the Charlie Parker with Strings album. The strings, arranged by Mehldau, Patrick Zimmerli and conductor Dan Coleman, sound like something lifted out of a piece of vinyl minted over 50 years ago -- this can be a good thing. The orchestra is not in any kind of desperately timely competition with Redman and his band. They don't make a bold new style that asks you to love it or hate it. They are the breeze in the background, the outdoor ambiance that surrounds the band at a great distance.
The band themselves are some more of Redman and Mehldau's trusty contemporaries. Larry Grenadier and Brian Blade may not be the rhythm section from hell on the first two tracks, but they have an opportunity to stretch out when they arrive at John Mayer's "Stop This Train". This is one of those jazzy non-jazz covers that could only come from a page in the Brad Mehldau playbook. Blade lays down such a subtly groovy chugga-chugga that I think this just barely qualifies as a ballad. But a Bach "Adagio" and a cover of the Beatles' "Let It Be" puts a damper on the jitterbugging.
Walking Shadows has traditional covers too. Strayhorn's "Lush Life", Rainger & Robin's "Easy Living" and Carmichael's "Stardust" give the album an old-time balance. But the newer material doesn't necessary sink the sew-saw too far into modern territory. The streetlamp cover of Blonde Redhead's "Doll Is Mine" illustrates this perfectly, as do the Redman originals "Let Me Down Easy" and "Final Hour". The other original, "Last Glimpse of Gotham" by Mehldau, kind of stretches things. Not to their breaking point, granted, but it does make an earnest attempt to set a new standard in the saxophone-meets-orchestra categories of musical suites.
Walking Shadows is engaging, even if you're not trying to pay attention. With the combination of lush orchestrations and Redman's fluid approach to his instrument, it'll definitely make its mark on you. And if you can get into the aesthetic of a nice, syrupy ballad complete with violins, then you're halfway there. For the rest of the stretch, you can just gently let go of the hard bop. At that point, Walking Shadows might be one of your top jazz picks of 2013. And astonishingly enough, it feels much shorter than it's 57-minute-plus running time.