Joshua Redman, all of 24 when his eponymous debut album was released seven years ago, was thrust into the limelight far too early -- long before he had a chance to find his own sound. The saxophonist, son of legendary saxophonist Dewey Redman, won the Thelonious Monk competition in 1991, spent a too-brief period recording with players like drummer Elvin Jones and pianist John Hicks and then became the next young lion in a long line of the constant search for new jazz masters.
Many critics, in their rush to crown a new king of reeds, lavished Redman's admirable if revelation-free early discs with praise once reserved for the instrument's true innovators. The massive hype paid well: So far, he has sold more than 2 million records worldwide, a remarkable figure for an instrumentalist A) not named Marsalis and B) not heard on smooth-jazz radio. Nonetheless, Redman still isn't a great -- even if he is on his way. He's certainly a loose-limbed, natural-sounding player, able to synthesize the sound of several generations of saxophone titans, but he hasn't invented anything new. At this point in Redman's career those same critics who once genuflected at the saxophonist's feet should be lining up to knock him off his throne.
Yet "Beyond," Redman's seventh disc as a leader, ought to silence an inevitable backlash. The album was recorded with his recent touring band -- pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Gregory Hutchinson -- and was released without superstar guests and attention-getting covers. Instead, it features Redman offering a more mature, personal, commanding approach on 10 compelling original compositions. Several boast unusual time signatures, and the beefy set pushes past the 73-minute mark.
Maybe it's the deep-blue melancholy that rolls so easily off Redman's tenor that adds so much heft to his attack. That's a quality first heard on opener "Courage (Asymmetric Aria)," a pretty tune in 13/4 time. That burnished edge reappears on the moving ballad "Neverend," originally heard on "Spirit of the Moment: Live at the Village Vanguard" (1995). During the improvisation, he wraps decorative ellipses around his main statements. He closes the composition with an air-raid high sound, sliding way down and then way up to the final note. It's a piece that might have been right at home on the soundtrack of a noir film, not to mention John Coltrane's classic "Ballads" album.
Redman shows off his delicate soprano sound on "Balance," winding down the piece with a long burnout section, repeating the last four bars of the form until a sort of frenzy sets in, and he stretches out even more on "Twilight ... and Beyond," an 11-minute suite featuring an opening theme originally written for Anna Deavere Smith's play about the Los Angeles riots ("Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992"). He alternates a foghornlike deep note with serpentine Eastern phrases on the cryptically titled "Last Rites of Rock & Roll."
Saxophonist Mark Turner joins his old Boston pal for the dizzying "Leap of Faith." The two tenors begin with a low, dissonance-laced hum, later shadowing and circling each other, diving in and out of the action in a game of one-upmanship that simultaneously sounds like serious musical camaraderie. Call it the two tenors, post-bop division, an extra attraction on a disc that may well yield a new appreciation of the 31-year-old talent: The cat is serious.