Saxophonist and composer Joshua Redman is an 11-time Grammy nominee and one of the most important voices in contemporary jazz.
Redman’s latest recording Where Are We is his first for Blue Note Records and also his first-ever vocal album. Featuring vocalist Gabrielle Cavassa, it takes us on a musical journey around the United States. Where Are We includes original compositions along with songs by Bruce Springsteen, Count Basie, Rodgers & Hart, John Coltrane, and more.
Ahead of his performance at Koerner Hall this Friday, Feb. 2, Redman joined us to talk about the new album and how it shaped his approach to music.
Your album takes us to Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and more. What is it about the current climate that made you want to both celebrate and critique America right now?
Originally, the concept was not something that I thought would stick. When Gabrielle Cavassa and I started planning a record, we had never met and never made music together. There’s such a vast ocean of songs that we could choose, so originally the concept was to create some sort of artificial rubric or framework that could limit our choices. Songs about places… even that was too broad. I didn’t necessarily expect the concept would stick around — it was just something to get us started. But in the end, it really did. I hope that each of these songs can stand on their own, that they don’t need the concept. But certainly, as the project developed and then we recorded it and I was able to see it in its entirety, I recognized that we’re definitely trying to capture different aspects of place and different aspects of being human in different parts of the United States, and different realities, and maybe the divergences between those different realities and ideals. There’s a lot in there, but hopefully most of all, it’s just some nice music.
What was your first encounter with hearing Gabrielle Cavassa sing, and how did you continue on to then make music together?
For me, it was a unique path to collaboration and a unique way to discover someone else musically. I first heard her not live, but on the internet. Gabrielle lives in New Orleans and my manager [saw her perform there] and she reached out to me: “There’s this vocalist you should check out.” There’s no shortage of brilliant vocalists — especially for female vocalists in jazz, it’s sort of a golden age right now — but there’s something uniquely compelling and captivating about her expression and her sound, the intimacy of it, the vulnerability of it. There’s a power but also a sensuality there that I thought was really unique. I had never made a record with a vocalist before, and I thought it was time.
Was the idea of a vocal album already percolating when you heard her?
Not really. I mean, there’s all sorts of things percolating, many of which I’m not even aware of. It’s in the subconscious until someone turns the flame up and then the fire alarm goes off and I go, “Oh! Better put this one out.” It’s something I had thought about at some point, but it wasn’t at the forefront of my mind.
You’ve done 16 albums as a leader. I’m wonder when you added Gabrielle’s voice to your mix, was it just like adding an instrument to the mix, or were there other considerations?
Well, the human voice is the greatest instrument, right? Especially a great voice like hers. There’s no better instrument in the world. If I could sing, I probably would sing. But I try to sing through the saxophone. For me, the biggest difference is just that as a saxophone player in instrumental jazz groups, I’m playing the role of the singer. I’m the melody instrument when I’m playing, most of the time. So, this was kind of a radical departure for me, because whenever Gabrielle is singing, she’s singing the lead. There’s an element of sacrifice there, because it’s fun to be the melodic centre of attention. But there’s also this liberating element, because it allowed me to turn that over to someone who really could do it properly. I’ve always considered myself a listener first, and I think I’m at my best musically when I’m in conversation with other musicians. I feel like I’m like that as a soloist, but this was an opportunity to transcend my typical role and be more of an accompanist, a supporting voice. But I took a lot of solos, don’t get me wrong. Don’t worry, saxophone nerds.
As someone who’s done so many shows as an instrumental quartet, do you have a different interaction with the audience when you have a vocalist out there?
That’s an excellent question. You know, it’s different. I don’t walk on the stage thinking it’s any different — I think that’s dangerous. I approach this with the same attitude and philosophy and ethic that I approach any performance, which is that I want to bring and discover my whole self, and I want to connect that self with the other musicians and with the audience, and I want to play as honestly, creatively, spontaneously, and soulfully as I can in the moment. That is the same. Of course, people relate to the human voice like they relate to no other instrument. And again, especially Gabrielle’s voice, it’s so unique and, in a way, unconventional, but it’s also intimately relatable. One of her superpowers is that she makes you feel like she’s sharing something very, very personal, direct, and unmediated with you. There’s a lack of affect. It feels very intimate and real. It seems like she’s letting you in on a secret. So, I think people sense that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.