Ballads, Beatles, Bach and Charlie Parker: an interview with jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman (playing the Annenberg Center tomorrow, 11/9)

Josh Redman photographed in Oakland, CA December 13, 2012©Jay Blakesberg © Jay Blakesberg
Josh Redman | Photo by Jay Blakesberg

The idea of recording an album of ballads has been on Joshua Redman’s mind as long as he’s been making records. Though he’s undertaken a number of different projects over the course of his career, it’s taken the 44-year-old saxophonist twenty years to actually fulfill that particular goal.

“I’ve always loved playing ballads and thought that I would want to do a ballad album of my own someday,” Redman says. “As a jazz musician, you’re very exposed playing a ballad. Everything happens slowly in a ballad, so everything is on full display: every nuance, every imperfection, every subtlety in your phrasing and your sound is right there in the open. It takes a certain amount of control and experience with your instrument and musical maturity to be able to pull that off. And you’re also exposed emotionally because playing a ballad you really have to dig deep, so you have to have a certain amount of vulnerability and life experience. I didn’t feel quite ready twenty years ago. I’m not sure I was totally ready this time, but I was definitely more ready.”

The result is Walking Shadows (Nonesuch), which complements Redman’s stellar quartet – featuring pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Brian Blade – with a small string orchestra, thereby tackling two daunting traditions at once. A number of jazz musicians have attempted to play with strings over the decades, only a select few managing to avoid being dragged down by mawkish or pedestrian arrangements.

Redman cites a number of influential models that struck the right balance, including classics by Clifford Brown, Ben Webster, and Stan Getz, as well as more modern attempts by the likes of Wynton Marsalis. The most well-known and divisive example of the form has long been Charlie Parker with Strings, the legendary saxophonist’s 1950 release. “I love that record, but I’m not crazy about the string arrangements,” says Redman, echoing a popular sentiment about the session. “I think that there’s a certain tension between the modernity and immediacy and rawness of Bird’s playing and what I think is at times a bit of old-fashioned sentimentality in the string writing. But there’s so much beauty that comes out of that, the way that Bird can just soar. He sounds inspired and so free and so melodic, even in the context of string writing that’s maybe not ideal.”

Working in conjunction with frequent collaborator Mehldau, Redman chose a surprisingly wide-ranging repertoire. There are the expected jazz and American Songbook standards, like “Easy Living,” “Lush Life,” and “Stardust.” But alongside those familiar tunes are Bach’s “Adagio,” a Beatles classic, “Let It Be,” and songs by John Mayer and Blonde Redhead. Continue reading →