Jazz at The Vogel: Joshua Redman

In September 2023, when tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman (photo above) released his first album on the Blue Note label, Where We Are, Frank Alkyer of DownBeat described it as “a confessional about America, one full of hopes and dreams, but also reality and confusion, and love, and loss.”

            Redman will be appearing at the Count Basie Center for the Arts’ Vogel Theater in Red Bank on February 9 and will be playing selections from Where We Are. The concept behind the album, he said, was that each tune is connected to places in America, adding a thematic layer and providing a cohesive and narrative-driven musical experience. Where We Are also introduces a new dimension to Redman’s discography as it features a vocalist for the first time — Gabrielle Cavassa (photo below), who will be joining him in concert.

            “I can’t sing,” he explained, “but I try to sing through the horn. Until now, I’ve been the prime melodic voice generally, and I finally had the courage to relinquish that role. The project started during the pandemic. It began at a time when I was basically doing nothing musically. I was thinking about doing something with a vocalist for a long time. I got a text from my manager, who was in New Orleans at an event. The text said, ‘I’m sitting here, and this vocalist is performing, and she’s absolutely riveting. You’ve got to check her out.’

            “So, I started to check out Gabrielle’s music; there’s something uniquely compelling and captivating about her. Her sound, her style, and her expression; and I was kind of drawn into it. Then we started talking about making an album.” Redman suggested picking songs connected to American locations. The result: “All the songs are connected conceptually, intellectually, and emotionally.” (Cavassa was a co-winner of the 2020 Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition and a Jersey Jazz Rising Star in July/August 2021).

                        One of the more fascinating pieces on the album was Redman’s blending of the Frank Perkins/Mitchell Parish standard, “Stars Fell on Alabama” with John Coltrane’s “Alabama”. “‘Stars Fell on Alabama’,” he said, “was a song that we settled on early. Jazz musicians often play these American Songbook tunes, these chestnuts. Many are nostalgic, romanticized, and optimistic, even if they’re sad songs. It’s a romantic idealism that is part of the American experience. It was important for me that we didn’t just represent that aspect of the American experience. I wanted to portray this juxtaposition of American idealism and romanticism versus the reality of American life and some of its great hardships.”

            Redman wrote the song combination in response to the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, in 1963. “It galvanized the civil rights movement in a lot of ways,” he pointed out. “I had that idea of this juxtaposition. ‘Stars Fell on Alabama’ is supposedly about a meteor shower that happened in the 1830s in Alabama. It’s very romanticized. It’s kind of a representation of a certain aspect of the (beauty) of the American South. I wanted to juxtapose that in connection with Coltrane’s ‘Alabama,’ a very different experience of the American South.

            Asked about his take on Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia”, Redman conceded that, “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would ever cover a Bruce Springsteen song. I have always had the utmost love and respect for Bruce Springsteen. He’s almost a statesman, a cultural force, and an icon. I didn’t grow up in New Jersey, and I wouldn’t say he’s been one of my biggest influences outside of jazz. But when Gabrielle and I were talking about songs, I said, almost jokingly, that we could do ‘Streets of Philadelphia’.

            “Gabrielle was somewhere in her car listening to music. She called or texted and said, ‘I’m in my car, and I heard just Streets of Philadelphia, and I’m crying. We should do the song.’ So, there was an emotional connection for her. She felt something with the song. So, I was like, okay. Then I went to work trying to find a way in which we might be able to bring it into our world and find some sort of meeting place between the world of improvised acoustic jazz and the world of Bruce Springsteen. I think it’s a prime example of a song I could have never done without a vocalist. I think it’s one of the tracks I feel is one of the more successful on the record.” (At presstime, Where We Are was Number 5 on the Jazz Week chart).

            Joshua Redman’s musical journey is uniquely fascinating. Born in Berkeley, CA, he is the son of legendary saxophonist Dewey Redman and dancer Renee Shedroff. Raised by his mother, Redman was exposed to a diverse range of music and arts from an early age. Initially starting on the clarinet, he transitioned to the tenor saxophone, which ultimately became his primary instrument.

Despite his passion for music, Redman didn’t initially envision a career in the field after high school. Instead, he pursued higher education at Harvard University, where he earned a degree in Social Studies, achieving the impressive feat of graduating summa cum laude in 1991. Following this academic success, he enrolled in Yale Law School, indicating a potential future in law. However, destiny had other plans.

“I graduated from Harvard in June of 1991 and moved to New York right after,” Redman recalled. “It was a last-minute decision. I was accepted to law school and decided to take a year’s deferment. I wasn’t sure where I was going to go. There was a house in Brooklyn with a bunch of musicians I had met when I was in the Boston area. And they were like, ‘Come down, sleep in the living room. We need help with the rent.’ So, I moved into that house and was just around music for the first time. Cats were practicing all the time, and there were jam sessions there all the time. Brooklyn was a real nexus for the young jazz community. So many musicians from my generation were living in the area, and I was going out to clubs and listening to music all the time, starting to work around town.”

One of Redman’s most cherished memories from that period involves creating music alongside his father, Dewey Redman. This experience allowed them to bond and forge a connection that was absent during Josh’s youth

“My father started hiring me,” he said. “I played with him at the Vanguard that summer. My father had moved to New York, sometime in 1968, and I was born in 1969, so he was already living in New York then. I was raised solely by my mom and really didn’t know my father. I knew his music well, but I didn’t know him well. I saw him maybe 10 times growing up when he would come to town and play. The irony is my mom was like, “Yes, play music,” and my father was like, “You’re crazy,” but it makes sense, right, because he was living the musician’s life.

“I’m biased,” he acknowledged, “but he’s one of the great tenor saxophonists in jazz. He had the utmost respect and admiration of his peers. He was a musician the community held in such high regard and esteem, yet he always struggled to make ends meet. I remember the first time I saw him at his apartment in Brooklyn. He said, ‘Hey, hang on. I’ll be back.’ He was gone for an hour and a half, and he came back, and he had a saxophone with him, and I was like, ‘Where’d you go?’ He said, ‘I had to get my saxophone out of the pawn shop.’ He would go on the road and make a little bread, then get off the road, and he would have to put his horn in the pawn shop to literally buy bread. He would only play the music that he wanted to play. He would never do something that he didn’t believe in 100 per cent musically; and he probably paid an economic price for that. He was highly educated. He was a teacher, but he chose to leave Texas, move to San Francisco, and drive a cab so he could play music.”

When Joshua Redman started playing with his father, he was young, and, in his words, “I could get around the horn. I had a certain flow, and I could form ideas quickly. I could kind of tell an interesting story as an improviser. Having to play after my father every night was an experience. He played with great depth and weight. The power of his sound and the love, the beauty, the angst, the anguish, the poignancy, the strength, the vulnerability, everything in his sound and the quality of expression amazed me. Whatever I played after him, I felt my playing was like cheap sprinkles you put on ice cream. That time was a great source of inspiration and revelation.”

Redman’s first tour without his father was in September 1991 with pianist Geoff Keezer. “Things were just starting to happen,” he said. “I was beginning to make my rent and could buy a couple of slices of pizza at night, and that’s all I needed. I was like, wow! I’m doing this, playing with the greatest musicians in the world, and I can support myself. I started getting calls from older musicians like Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette and doing tours with them. Then, on a whim, I entered and won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition in 1991.

That swiftly propelled his career. He signed with Warner Brothers Records and released his debut self-titled album in 1993, which received significant acclaim. The album’s success was evident as it reached Number 3 on the Traditional Jazz Charts. The momentum continued with subsequent albums on the WB label. Wish (1993), MoodSwing (1994), and Freedom in the Groove (1996), among others, reached top positions on the charts and achieved substantial sales.

            “I was, and I’m still surprised by it (early success). I still thought I was going to go to law school. So it didn’t even feel like a gamble; there was a certain kind of nonchalance to it all. Maybe some of that is youthful ignorance. Making music has always been fun for me. It was never this thing that I was serious about. Don’t get me wrong. I’m very serious about it now, but music was always my escape. I didn’t plan to do this. I didn’t really work hard to make it a career early on. I loved the music and listened deeply to it, but it’s always been like, let’s have some fun. Yeah, let’s make a record!”

            When asked to summarize his musical journey, Redman said, “I just feel super lucky, fortunate. I am grateful to be able to do this for so long and to do it with some of the best to have ever done it. I’m still having fun.” When jokingly asked if law school was in his future, he laughed and said, “Oh God no, there’s no way I can imagine doing anything else with my life.”–JAY SWEET

 The Joshua Redman/Gabrielle Cavassa concert begins at 7 p.m. on Friday, February 9. For more information or to order tickets, log onto thebasie.org or call (732) 842-9000.

 JOSHUA REDMAN PHOTO BY ZACK SMITH

GABRIELLE CAVASSA PHOTO BY ANTHONY ALVAREZ

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