Joshua Redman, Where Are We Review
Blurring Boundaries: Joshua Redman’s Where Are We
by Nolan DeBuke
Redman’s musical tapestry has primarily been instrumental, often buoyed by his consummate skill as a saxophonist. However, in Where Are We, his lyrical debut, the emotive power of his saxophone finds a voice—literally. The project, released under the reputable Blue Note Records, signals a contemporary folk jazz focus, which is an exciting development for the genre.
By weaving folk elements into the jazz framework, Where Are We positions itself at the forefront of what could be considered the next evolutionary step in jazz. This fusion of genres serves as a potent means of storytelling, allowing for deeper emotional resonance and broader thematic scope. Notably, the contemporary folk jazz focus also allows greater audience engagement. The blending of jazz and folk—both of which enjoy a wide listener base—creates a more accessible and melodically rich landscape that can attract an even larger demographic. Furthermore, the genre’s inclination toward contemporary themes makes it relevant and relatable, enhancing its potential to resonate with a variety of listeners. In this way, the album expands jazz’s boundaries and deepens its capacity for social commentary and emotional resonance.
The new trio featuring pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Joe Sanders, and drummer Brian Blade shapes the album’s sound into a multi-layered experience. “Streets Of Philadelphia,” for instance, showcases Rosenwinkel’s guitar and Cavassa’s evolving vocals against an impressive backdrop of rhythms and grooves laid down by Blade and Sanders. This trio’s technical brilliance and emotive power serve as a sophisticated platform that allows Redman’s saxophone and Cavassa’s vocals to explore and express freely. The core trio’s chemistry and understanding of how to lyrically convey many styles is the key to the album’s brilliance and cohesive flow through the many feels and textures.
The album opens with “After Minneapolis,” a haunting elegy for George Floyd with lyrics penned by Joshua Redman, featuring additional verses originally written by Woodie Guthrie. Redman’s unaccompanied intro is both immediate and compelling, setting the emotional tone before yielding to Cavassa’s deeply evocative vocal rendition. Redman’s expressive saxophone solo layers additional depth, echoing themes of sorrow and introspection. Technically, Parks and Sanders contribute masterfully to the rhythmic shifts and harmonic flow, ensuring the listener remains engaged from start to finish.
Another highlight is the imaginative reinterpretation of Bruce Springsteen’s classic, “Streets Of Philadelphia.” The track features an unaccompanied intro by Rosenwinkel, whose guitar work shines through its excellent tone and meticulous arpeggios. Redman’s saxophone solo leans into the lyrical rather than the technical, enriching the song’s emotional narrative. Cavassa’s staccato vocals at the outset evolve seamlessly into a more fluid melody, demonstrating her remarkable range across jazz, R&B, and pop genres. Her singing is an undeniable delight, enhanced further by Blade’s intricate and groovy drum patterns.
“Chicago Blues” showcases Redman and his ensemble at their most experimental, blending jazz with hues of blues and indie pop. Joel Ross’s vibraphone offers a contrasting, lighter timbre that meshes well with Cavassa’s modern jazz vocals. Technically speaking, Ross’s solo is a study in harmonic and rhythmic lyricism, while Redman sticks to his signature rhythmic flair and emotional expressiveness.
The instrumental “Baltimore” stands out for its rich joining of musical styles; this is the standout track of the set. With roots in jazz but shoots in folk and indie pop, the track opens with Parks and Sanders’s captivating piano and bass introduction. This segues into Redman’s saxophone, which is drenched in emotive phrasing. From a technical standpoint, the musicians utilize improvisational freedom to explore complex harmonies; while the melody itself is beautifully simple, the ensemble builds the complexities with elegance. This simplicity allows the ensemble to delve into intricate harmonics without overshadowing the foundational theme, lending the track a sense of sophistication and accessibility.
On the technical front, the album showcases the kind of top-tier musicianship from artists deeply grounded in their craft. The contributions from special guests like Nicholas Payton on trumpet and Joel Ross on vibraphone add to the album’s robust instrumental palette. Blue Note Records’ focus on contemporary folk-jazz, evidenced by their artist line-up, is a fitting space for Redman’s expansive approach. In addition, the album is expertly recorded and mixed to capture every nuance and detail.
Musically and lyrically, Where Are We extends beyond the realms of love and loss to grapple with the more significant questions of societal inequities and injustices. “Chicago Blues” and “Baltimore” are powerful socio-political narratives. For instance, the former tracks the history of Chicago while highlighting its racial and economic divisions, whereas the latter addresses the ongoing racial tensions in America, particularly in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death. Redman and his ensemble take these challenging themes and transform them into thought-provoking musical compositions, steeped in the jazz tradition yet innovative in their approach. Like jazz luminaries Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis before him, Redman’s Where Are We continues the genre’s longstanding commitment to social critique. It does so by integrating these complex themes into a form that is as accessible as it is layered, effectively inviting a broad audience to engage in this crucial dialogue if desired.
In sum, Where Are We is a notable achievement in Joshua Redman’s already illustrious career. It showcases his growth as an artist and the untapped possibilities lying at the intersection of contemporary jazz and folk. This album, released under the prestigious Blue Note Records, marks an essential chapter in the ongoing story of jazz—a genre that has never shied away from the most tumultuous soils of exploration, be it genres or topics.