It is difficult to know what counts as new in jazz these days. Visionary reinterpretations of somewhat banal standards have long played a part in the development of the genre. Saxophonist Joshua Redman was certainly aware of this tradition when he determined the material for his latest album, Timeless Tales (For Changing Times). The album features 10 songs, five from the Tin Pan Alley tradition of the first half of this century and five from the latter half, drawing from the traditions of rock, folk and R&B.
Redman belongs to a generation of jazz musicians that grew up listening to jazz and popular music in equal measure. It seems natural, therefore, that we might see some blurring of the boundaries between musical idioms. This is nothing new, of course. In the 1970s, the incorporation into jazz of elements of the rock music of the day was known as fusion and its siren song lured such young lions as Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock.
Jazz seems to have turned its back on fusion recently, but as an article in the October 12 issue of Time Magazine gamely points out, fusion never really went away. It remains in its watered-down form to this day, called smooth jazz and served up by such willing practitioners as Kenny G. Even the idea of an album featuring more traditional jazz treatments of recent popular tunes is not entirely new, as evidenced by Herbie Hancock’s 1996 album The New Standard. Still, if songs from the rock, folk and R&B idioms do indeed become standards in the same way that the show tunes and popular music of the first half of the century have, their performance will not be limited to concept albums or smooth jazz and it will become somewhat irrelevant who did it first.
The album begins with an energetic, up-tempo Latin treatment of Gershwin’s “Summertime.” It is an ambitious choice, considering the immortal jazz versions of this song already in the repertoire, but Redman and his quartet give an admirable performance. Redman benefits enormously throughout the album from the high quality of his sidemen: Brad Mehldau on piano, Larry Grenadier on bass and Brian Blade on drums. They are a tight unit, feeding well off each other’s ideas and energy. Mehldau is excellent both as an accompanist and a soloist, Blade’s playing is busy but always tasteful and Grenadier is solid throughout. The chemistry between the four musicians continues to yield thrills and surprises as the album moves from Stevie Wonder’s ponderous “Visions” to the funk-influenced versions of “Love For Sale” and “Yesterdays,” to the bluesy jam of Prince’s “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore.”
By and large the accepted standards are excellent. At times Redman’s interpretations of the more recent material run into some problems. Joni Mitchell’s “I Had A King” serves as a showcase for Redman’s soprano saxophone. The tune is lush and haunting and hovers right on the boundary between truly beautiful and over-dramatic and corny, occasionally, it must be said, crossing over that boundary. Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” is probably the weakest number on the entire album. Despite energized playing from Blade (who appeared on Dylan’s GrammyÂ® Award-winning Album “Time Out of Mind”), the tune never really develops a sense of purpose and was probably a poor choice for this album. Redman’s voice is not as distinctive amid the bustle of today’s jazz world as Dylan’s was at the time he wrote the song.
The real triumph of “Timeless Tales (For Changing Times)” is, shockingly, “Eleanor Rigby.” Redman’s hard-swinging treatment of the elevator-worn Beatles classic continues to impress throughout its nearly nine-minute playing time. It begins with an understated 5/4 groove that runs throughout the entire piece, and reaches some frenetic climaxes as Mehldau, Grenadier and Redman all take excellent solos.
With the exception of “Eleanor Rigby,” however, the strongest numbers on the album are the established standards. Still, the newer material is always played with a great deal of sophistication and musicianship. The rhythm section plays impeccably at any tempo, and rhythmic variations come off without a hitch. Mehldau and Redman frequently play melodic lines in unison, often to great effect. Even if the experiment with recent “standards” does not always come off perfectly, the playing is undeniably excellent.
Joshua Redman is one of the brightest stars of a young generation of very talented jazz musicians. Harvard-educated, attractive and from a famous jazz family, he is an ideal ambassador for the music. His latest release doesn’t break much new ground, but is a solid addition to an already impressive body of work and encouraging of exciting things to come.