Jazz, like almost every form of music in the ’90s, is in a state of waiting: tacitly acknowledging the shortage of memorable new music by reinterpreting creations of the past. Most purvey the standards of Tin Pan Alley; a handful try to bring songs from the folk and rock eras into play. Joshua Redman is pulling tunes from both sides — or, as he put it during his set at the Fonda, “mess them up in a creative way.”
It’s not a tactical retreat for Redman, since the 29-year-old saxman remains a prolific composer and included several of his tunes in the 100-minute-plus set (such as “Dialogue,” a showcase for bassist Reuben Rogers, and the dusky closing ballad, “Never End”).
But his focus — both on his new Warner Bros. album “Timeless Tales (for Changing Times)” and in the set — was on music by such diverse bedfellows as Joni Mitchell, Cole Porter, Lennon/McCartney and Jerome Kern.
Therein lies the problem: How to make rockers’ songs as adaptable to the conventions of neo-bop and soul-jazz as the old standards. Fortunately, after the mixed results on his new album, Redman is working on it.
For example, he is clearly more comfortable now with Mitchell’s “I Had a King” — playing sweetly on soprano sax, rolling off a great string of even, rapid notes in the course of a cogently organized solo. The 5/4-meter take on “Eleanor Rigby” was more thoughtful, searching and heated (though he ought to ditch that cliched ending of his.)
Interestingly, Redman’s most successful cover of a rock tune on the album was his broadly funky treatment of Prince’s “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore,” but a loud request for the song from the audience was politely overlooked.
The maturing Redman thankfully doesn’t resort to much cheap, high-note pandering to the crowd these days, and he remains an engaging, even boyish personality in his intros. His touring quartet is pitched at high levels of technique and internal empathy, with pianist Aaron Goldberg functioning well within a range of de rigeur mainstream styles (McCoy Tyner in particular) and drummer Greg Hutchinson capable of combustible interplay.