In the mid-20th century, jazz went through several seismic shifts: the emergence of bebop in the ’40s, the arrival of free jazz in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and the synthesis that became known as fusion in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Since then there have been no structural shifts of comparable magnitude, which makes it hard to devise a shorthand label comparable to grunge in rock, minimalism in classical music or gangsta rap in hip hop. Yet jazz musicians continue to produce compelling music, even if it defies easy description.
“Nearness,” the new duet recording by pianist Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Joshua Redman, is a fine case in point. Few records released this year better define what jazz sounds like today, even if there isn’t a hip noun to describe it. The recording is a collection of live performances from their 2011 European tour, and it features three originals and three standards. The standards— Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology,” Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud,” and “The Nearness of You,” which was written by Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington—are the highlights; the duo present amalgams of the trends that define post-millennial jazz.
“Ornithology” begins with the familiar cascade of swinging eighth notes, but almost immediately there are tempo shifts and rapid mood changes. Mr. Mehldau’s counterpoint to Mr. Redman’s lead ranges from stern contrast to gentle complement. The rapid shifts are indicative of an age where information is received in 140-character bursts. First Mr. Redman and then Mr. Mehldau uses his solo to probe and abstract the familiar theme. With the exception of a brilliant reworking by piano great Bill Evans, “Ornithology” usually is faithfully covered, but Messrs. Mehldau and Redman manage to stay true to the composition’s spirit while taking it into new realms.
“In Walked Bud” slows after the first thematic statement, and for a minute the two musicians alter the notes. It is as if another Monk classic, “Bright Mississippi,” is edging into the picture, almost as if it were an electronically generated sample but done with acoustic instruments. Without abandoning the structure and melody, they take the piece far afield. Then both musicians solo, concluding the piece with an improvised duet that accents the myriad possibilities in the tune.
“The Nearness of You” is slowed to a glacial pace, even slower than Frank Sinatra’s definitive version and the extraordinary rendition by Bill Charlap 14 years ago. The pianist and saxophonist nearly turn the Carmichael/Washington ballad into a quiet meditation from a murmured entreaty and expression of longing, their solos more ruminative than extroverted. It’s at a tempo not often found in mainstream jazz but commonplace in trip hop and dance music not driven by the beat. The highlight comes at the end when Mr. Redman takes an unaccompanied solo that returns longing to the center of the song.
These standards offer valuable opportunities for comparative listening, but there is plenty to enjoy in the original works on the disc as well. They feature stellar, intuitive interplay between the musicians. It’s a likely product of their being on tour for several weeks with this repertoire. Most notable is their ability to blend traditions from across decades. Mr. Mehldaus’s “Old West” and Mr. Redman’s “Melancholy Mood” feature the serene, pastoral themes that became popular during the ECM recordings of the ’70s and ’80s, but each musician takes thorny solos, more characteristic of free jazz. This merger of styles did not become commonplace until this century.
Mr. Mehldau is 46 years old and Mr. Redman a year older. Both have been prominent figures on the New York jazz scene since the early ’90s, when Mr. Redman was the bright young star following his triumph in the 1991 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition. Mr. Mehldau was the pianist in his band on tours then and earned considerable acclaim. Mr. Redman’s recordings deftly moved from traditional jazz to fusions with funk and hip hop. On his recordings, Mr. Mehldau became well known for taking ’90s rock classics and making them into natural parts of the jazz fabric. “Nearness” is an impressive work that showcases two active minds smartly updating classics. Now, if only they’d devise a buzzword for their style.
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.