Published Jul 01, 2013Jazz with strings is a decades-old concept that has seen many of the most exciting soloists in the world nod off in plush circumstances. One of the most unforgettable scenes in Clint Eastwood's Bird is of a junked-out Charlie Parker barely keeping it together to solo inside too-slow songs with syrupy arrangements. Frequently exciting saxophonist Joshua Redman has taken a kick at the can with his last album (with Brad Meldhau) called Walking Shadows. Though the arrangements have a more modern feel, most tracks can be best described as audio heroin: ballads kinda slumped in the corner, barely able to move.
However, at Montreal's absolutely stunning Maison Symphonique, even the most turgid ballads gained gravitas in the superior-sounding hall. Backed by a 15-piece ensemble in only the project's second live outing, Redman's quartet leaned heavily on standards — unstandard procedure for him, as he pointed out — which sometimes soared and sometimes plodded.
There was an inherent tension between the tightly-metred, conducted orchestra and the more freewheeling quartet. Billy Strayhorn's evergreen "Lush Life" works in pretty much any context, but here the arrangement tended towards the fussy: orchestra, then quartet, then orchestra again as the two halves of the stage traded-off musical elements rather than work together. Meldhau's sweet-and-sour arrangement of "Easy Living" was a successful fusion, though, and whenever a bossa nova lilt made its way into the proceedings, strings made more sense. On the whole, the non-stringed instruments were underused and actually intrusive at times. However, this is one show where the venue made middling music sound much, much better, as the acoustic jazz and symphonic sounds blended together organically in sublime fashion. This show was worth it for the setting alone, and the music was well-suited for it.