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For Your Consideration: Joshua Redman's 'Walking Shadows'

Anthony Dean-Harris
Editor-in-Chief / @i_ADH

It's been four years since Joshua Redman has released an album as a leader, two years since the jazz collaborative James Farm's release (three years since Redman contributed in large part to Brad Mehldau's 2010 album Highway Rider, but more on that later). Clearly the desire for Redman to put out new work has been steadily growing, but patience is most certainly a virtue. All throughout Joshua Redman's new album, Walking Shadows, out today on the Nonesuch label, is the sense that this wait hasn't been arbitrary. This new album, featuring bassist Larry Grenadier, drummer Brian Blade, and pianist & producer Brad Mehldau in the rhythm section, feels purposeful. The buildup to this release has been filled with acquired skills, learned tones, and strengthened bonds between contemporaries.

In order to understand to some degree the larger sound this album achieves, it helps to think of the arc Brad Mehldau as producer has been making in his career thus far. The taste of the fuller sound we had a glimmer of in 2010's Highway Rider, in which Redman was certainly a focal part, is revisited here once more. Lately, it's been looking more and more apparent that Mehldau has been adding tools to his toolbox. It's been a marvel to see how he has added larger elements like the string arrangements Mehldau dabbled with in Highway Rider and revisit them again, this time taking more of the reins co-arranging alongside Patrick Zimmerli and conductor Dan Coleman, and applying them here to Redman's album. The album, while not diminishing from its enjoyability, indeed sounds like a mathematical equation of what Brad Mehldau would produce with his old friend three years after Highway Rider. It's an album of ballads from a couple of dudes whose taste for orchestral arrangements stuck.

However, since this album has a larger feel to it with the added string arrangements, the overall tone feels grander but softer. There are fewer opportunities for the core quartet to let loose.1 Thus the album comes off as sweet without getting the death knell of "pleasant". It's sweeping, even cinematic, without sounding too much like a museum piece, but it might still have an "eat your vegetables" kind of vibe, especially to the uninitiated. Ballads have a tendency of doing that. Nevertheless, Walking Shadows is still quite the accomplishment. There's great musicianship here and interesting approaches to the occasionally contested Great American Songbook and some classy new compositions. It's the kind of album that courageously is what Redman and Mehldau wanted to make, masses be damned. When you're making an album with an orchestral ensemble to execute ballads with aplomb (but not a lot of whimsy), that takes a certain degree of confidence. To the well acquainted, the direction the Redman/Mehldau duo takes is a fascinating and welcome turn; however, to any newcomers, this album may come off as a little stodgy and a possible reach for the Starbucks counter. It's up to the listener to determine where on this spectrum s/he resides.

1. Is 2013 the year of having the immense talent of Brian Blade on hand only to largely have him hold down the fort? Redman's album marks Blade's fourth appearance so far this year on someone's album after Iron and Wine's Ghost on Ghost and Wayne Shorter's Without A Net (as well as with the Edward Simon Trio on Live in New York at the Jazz Standard, an album I honestly haven't yet had the chance to hear). I would hope Redman would take no offense in my saying the legendary Wayne Shorter has the strongest album of the three listed and gives Blade more room to stretch out. Such can be expected since Blade has been part of Shorter's current quartet for more than a decade. While Blade has worked with Redman in the past, it's fair to say this particular endeavor is kind of a different animal entirely.

Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio. More of his writing can be found at his blog, In Retrospect and you can also follow him on Twitter.