Beyond (Warner Bros. 47465)
Back in the late '80s and early '90s, the jazz scene was blessed with a bumper crop of young virtuosos. Boasting sterling technique and a solid grounding in the post-bop tradition, talented youngsters like saxophonist Antonio Hart, trumpeter Roy Hargrove and pianist Cyrus Chestnut garnered rave reviews in the music press, encouraging critics to think that a jazz renaissance was on the horizon.
But for all the ability these prodigies displayed, there was seldom anything striking about the music they made. Sure, their albums were polished and assured, but were they as strikingly original as pianist Gerri Allen's first recordings? Did they redefine traditionalism, as Wynton Marsalis did? Did they, in other words, bring something new to the table?
Of all the young lions to emerge in the '90s, Joshua Redman was perhaps the most promising. In addition to unassailable technique on soprano, alto and tenor saxophones, he had both brains (having graduated from Harvard) and a great background (his father, Dewey, played saxophone with Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett, among others).
Redman's first few albums provided his confidence as a bandleader, and showcased the singularity of his tone. But it's with "Beyond" that we finally get a sense of his originality as an improviser.
"Beyond" finds Redman working with his regular quartet -- pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Rueben Rogers and drummer Gregory Hutchinson -- and playing Redman's own material. It's an extremely disciplined performance, with all four players working within the well-defined parameters of Redman's arrangements.
And yet, within the confines of these carefully constructed tableaux, there's a tremendous sense of freedom to Redman's playing.
Take, for instance, the way Redman likes to work against the bass line. Where other jazz musicians like to let the bass player "walk" -- that is, play an improvised, moving bass line that sketches out the chord structure in abstract -- tunes like "Stoic Revolutions" and "Courage (Asymmetric Aria)" tend more toward repetitious ostinato bass patterns. It's almost as if Redman and company are improvising against a riff like rock or R&B; musicians.
Except that the rhythm structures in Redman's music are never as unyielding as they would be in pop. "Courage," for instance, allows Rogers to move slowly away from the central bass line, until he's walking bop-style beneath Goldberg's piano solo. "Stoic Revolutions," on the other hand, uses the repeated bass pattern to grant more freedom to Hutchinson's drumming.
Still, it's Redman's own playing that shines brightest here. Like Wayne Shorter, Redman has a fondness for working against the expectations of a chord structure, pulling the harmonies inside-out to suggest new melodic possibilities. Yet his playing never seems as ethereal as Shorter's, and some of the album's most pleasant moments come when he grounds adventurous improvisation in the earthiness of the blues, as in the epic "Twilight ... and Beyond."
By the time we get to the 10th and final track, "A Life?," Redman and his crew have touched on every significant influence in contemporary jazz, from Monk and Coltrane to gospel and blues, but never does the music seem overly-schooled or derivative. Instead, it sounds like Redman has pushed the music forward -- something precious few jazz prodigies have managed.
The Man Who (Epic 62151)
Whenever the phrase "Big in Britain" gets tacked onto a band's reputation, there's the expectation that the group in question will be big and splashy. But Travis -- recently deemed Britain's favorite band by the English music magazine Q -- is so understated in its approach that American listeners may wonder how the band got noticed in the first place. The answer is simple: songs. As "The Man Who" makes plain, not only does this quartet have a memorable way with melody, but it revels in the pop potential of a well-turned tune. So no matter how quiet the arrangements may seem, it's hard not to be pulled in by the Beatlesque charm of "Driftwood" or the Nilsson-esque melancholy of "She's So Strange."
On the Floor at the Boutique (Astralwerks 49130)
Although techno and house have become more and more oriented to synthesizers and rhythm machines, big beat -- the driving, pop-friendly club style typified by Fatboy Slim -- still has strong roots in the DJ culture of turntables and samplers. Perhaps that's why the remix album "On the Floor at the Boutique" could easily pass for a Fatboy Slim album, even though Slim is only mixing tracks by other artists. It doesn't hurt that many of the tracks, such as Mr. Natural's "Green Jesus," follow Slim's formula, leavening repeated phrases with electronic noises of gradually increasing intensity. But the album's real kick comes from the way Slim bounces between club obscurities, updated oldies like the Incredible Bongo Band's "Apache," and pop faves like Slim's own "Rockefeller Skank."
Tin Hat Trio
Helium (Angel 56935)
A lot of acts like to boast about not fitting into pigeonholes, but few defy categorization as completely as the Tin Hat Trio does on "Helium." Working with an odd assortment of instruments -- "A Life in East Poultney," for example, blends banjo, viola, bass harmonica and marxophone -- the group's sound is an inviting goulash of musical styles. It isn't just that the Tin Hatters draw on everything from country blues to Argentine tango to Parisian cafe music; what really makes this music pop and sizzle is that the influences are overlaid in completely unexpected ways. Maybe that's why a tune like "Beverly's March" seems as much an offhand rocker as a sly nod to Prokofiev, or how "Esperanto" can seem to evoke both Kurt Weill and Greek folk music without sounding like either. A blessing for adventurous ears.