Sunday Conversation: Joshua Redman On His Stunning New Musical Road Trip Of America

By Steve Baltin for Forbes

Thirty years into his career, acclaimed jazz saxophonist/composer Joshua Redman is continuing to chart new territory. On his stunning new album, Where Are We, Redman marks a few firsts. For starters it’s his debut on iconic jazz label Blue Note. And, much more importantly, it marks his first album working with a featured vocalist, as rising star Gabrielle Cavassa takes the vocal lead throughout the collection.

Redman, Cavassa and the stellar band — pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Brian Blade — lead listeners on a musical journey through the U.S., with every song being tied to a U.S. city or state. Some tracks, like renditions of John Coltrane’s “Alabama” and “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans,” made famous by Louis Armstrong, feel very natural for the jazz supergroup to tackle. Others, such as Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” and Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago,” included in a mash up with Count Basie’s “Goin’ To Chicago,” called “Chicago Blues,” are much more surprising.

Redman led Sage Bava and I through his musical road trip of America in a fascinating conversation. We talked with Redman about what his musical alter ego would be like, the decision to cover Springsteen, how the pandemic helped lead him to work with Cavassa and much more.

Steve Baltin: If you could merge off into a split personality, what would you want your alter ego to be?

Joshua Redman: I don’t know, but something closer to whatever my personality is as a musician, I would prefer to be that [chuckle] in the rest of my life. I think I’d be a much more highly functioning and more satisfied human being. But you can’t have it all, right? [chuckle]

Baltin: Do you become a different person on stage playing music? And when did you first realize that there was Josh Redman the person, and Joshua Redman the artist?

Redman: Yeah. [Laughter] I probably shouldn’t have led you down this line of questioning, but I’m game for it. I don’t think I become a different person. At least, I hope I don’t. To the extent that the self is real, which it probably isn’t, I would like to think that I’m a fairly integrated self and hopefully the self that exists in music is related to the self that exists outside of music. But I guess I feel like I’m often my best self in music. And I guess, mainly because I think that it’s always been through music that I have been able to relate to the world and maybe in particular to relate to other beings in the world, other humans in the most honest and genuine, and in a way, unselfconscious way. I think, as a human outside of music in the world, I carry a fair amount in my head and I have a noisy head, I guess you could say. So I was super introverted as a kid, probably anxious. That’s kind of the way I’m wired. And with music, I’ve always felt the most relaxed and at peace and accepting of myself. And in a way I kind of lose myself and also, in a way, I feel I’ve become a musical extrovert and yeah, I’m in the moment and going with the flow. It sounds a little woo-woo, but music is kind of a spiritual salvation for me in some respects.

Sage Bava: I had to share Ann Wilson the other day, she put it so perfectly. She said, “I become invisible behind the voice.” And in being in different worlds that she creates as a composer, that is what is the personality. And then she just goes away. So I wanted to ask about your creation of these different worlds, and perhaps that’s the split personality that we’re speaking on, and your navigation in the composition of it and the feeling of it and how it’s just a different facet of you.

Redman: I definitely don’t feel like I’m creating another space or another world for myself. I don’t feel like that at all. I feel like that space and that world just exists and I enter into it, and the space and that world is the space and worlds of making music with other beings. And it’s a very comfortable space for me. It’s also a very sacred space for me. It’s a space that I’ve entered from a very early age. Steve, you asked about when did I first kind of discover whatever it is that I think I’ve discovered about myself. I’m not sure if I’ve discovered anything, but I’ve been playing music for a very long time. Not seriously; I didn’t get serious about music till I was after college. But yeah, even before I played the saxophone, picking up any instrument, there was something that this chatter in my brain melted away. I’ve always gone to instruments to try to express something even if I didn’t have the skills or the language or the tools to express those things. So yeah, I don’t feel like I’m creating a world. I feel like I’m entering into a world and that world is a gift for me. It’s a privilege to be a part of that.

Baltin: My favorite artist in the history of the world is Bruce Springsteen. So “Streets of Philadelphia,” where’d it come from?

Redman: Where did the idea come from to do that song? It is a bit bizarre, and you’re not the first person who’s asked about this. I knew this was gonna come when we chose to cover the song and to record it. Yeah, if you had told me 20 years ago, or actually if you had told me 20 days before we did the record date, “You’re going to do a cover of a Bruce Springsteen song?”, I would’ve been like, “You’re crazy.” I have the utmost respect for Bruce Springsteen. He is one of the icons of popular music and especially for someone of my generation. And he’s an incredible musician, incredible man. What he’s done for the music and what he’s done for our society is really phenomenal. And I’ve always dug his music. But as much as I loved his music, I never really would’ve thought it could be necessarily the best match for a jazz interpretation or my sort of jazz interpretation. But when Gabrielle and I started to plan the record, and we had this concept of doing songs about different places in the United States, obviously the idea came up because it’s one of the most iconic songs about a place in the United States. And I remember when that movie came out, when Philadelphia, the movie with Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington came out, I remember the song was a very important movie, important song, important moment in our culture. And I think I originally kind of was like, “Oh, there’s ‘Streets of Philadelphia,’ but we can’t do that.” And Gabrielle was like, “Yeah, we can’t do that.” But there was some point when we were communicating about the record during the pandemic. So we were basically talking mostly through text the whole time. We actually didn’t meet in person until about a month before we recorded the album. But there was one point at which she said, “Oh, I’m listening to this song in the car and it’s beautiful. I’m crying. I think we should do it.” So I was like, “Okay, let’s give it a try.” All the structure of the song is basically preserved. We changed the form a little bit, but it’s the exact same lyrics. It’s the same fundamental harmonic structure. The melody is pretty much the same. Really what I did is preserved the structure, but just put these other elements within the harmonies, these sort of very not Bruce Springsteen sorts of little motions within the broad harmonic structure. And it’s obviously a very different treatment in terms of the groove, in terms of the sonics of it. And I think it’s a testament to Gabrielle. She really made that song her own. I think she did a beautiful job with it.

Bava: I’d love to know more about this collaboration with Gabrielle. I love her voice and I’ve loved her music for a long time. And within this world that you’re both entering… I like that better than “creating.” The process of how it all came to be, I’d love to hear from you on that.

Redman: So, yeah, it’s definitely not a typical story. It’s definitely not, especially for me in terms of the way I’ve gone about connecting with other musicians and building musical relationships. And I think some of it has to do with just the unique conditions of the time. The pandemic, I think the genesis of it is certainly I don’t think would have happened the same way had that not existed. And I guess, what I mean by that is Gabrielle is obviously from California. I think she’s from Escondido. And she was in San Francisco. I don’t know the exact years, but I think in the early ’10s, maybe? She went to San Francisco State I think, and then was on the scene here. I live in Berkeley, California. I’ve been born and raised and I’ve been back here since 2002. I was in New York from ’91 to 2002. So she was here and playing and gigging. I may have heard her name, but I wasn’t aware of her. I had never heard her while she was here. That’s not atypical ’cause when I’m here, I’m really a homebody. I feel in a way more of a connection to the New York scene than I do to the San Francisco scene. And then she left and she went to New Orleans, and I probably had heard of her when she won the Sarah Vaughan Competition. I feel like I heard a bit about her then. But really what happened, my manager, Ann Marie Wilkins, and it’s strange because she’s an awesome manager, but really she was like from the beginning, “This is a strict dividing line. You deal with the music. I deal with the business. Never the twain shall meet.” So although I know she loves music and has good ears, we’ve never really had creative musical conversations before. She’s kind of like, “You do what you’re gonna do and let me handle the rest.” But she was at some sort of event in New Orleans. And she texted me out of the blue. And she was like, “I’m at this party and it’s not even a concert. And a lot of people aren’t really listening or like people are talking, but there’s this woman here singing and she’s just absolutely riveting. And you’ve got to listen, check her out.” And under normal circumstances, I probably would have seen the text and just been like on the road like, “Whatever.” But I was home. I wasn’t doing s**t, chopping garlic or something. And so I said, “Okay, I’ll check her out.” So how do you check people out when you can’t go out and meet them or hear their music? You go on the internet. And I’m not super savvy with the internet but I had a lot of time, as we all did on the pandemic, to bounce around on the internet. And I heard her record and I loved her record and there was something about her. Obviously Sage, as you say, her voice is a beautiful instrument. It’s deep, it’s rich, that she’s expressive, but there’s just this intimacy and it’s almost like a vulnerability and also a sensuality. She just draws you in. And so I was like, “Yeah, she sounds great.” And I’ve worked with vocalists before, but always as assignment, never in one of my own projects. And yeah, we started communicating and decided to do a record together. So that’s what this is.

Bava: It’s such a blending of her world and your world. And I want to hear more about the process, like the meeting.

Redman: I don’t feel like I have that many strengths as a musician other than that I love music and that I don’t love my own music. So I work hard to try to make it better. So that’s a strength as I try to improve. But if I have a strength as a musician, I think one of them is that I think I’m a good listener and I’m relatively empathetic as a musician. And I also approach every musical situation, I think, with a very collaborative spirit. Whether it’s my project or someone else’s project or a joint project, really my attitude is always like, “How can I enter this musical world with this person or these people and try to be a part of this world in the most honest, expressive way? And how can I help contribute to the collective story that’s being told to the conversation, to the music, with the whole of the music that’s being made, not focused on like my part?” So I think that once we started talking about doing a record together, and it was clear it was going to be under my direction in the sense that it was going to be whatever label I was going to end up on, it would probably be my label. I was going to produce it. But it was really important for me to get to know her as a musician and also it was very important for me to not be like, “Okay, we’re going to do this and this and this, and these are the arrangements. And then you need to sing this.” That’s not how I operate with any musician. But I think especially with the vocalist, because I don’t have as much experience, playing with and collaborating with vocalists. And especially with Gabrielle, because I think one of her super powers is this deep, emotional connection that she establishes with the song that she’s singing. And I think that’s very important for her. I got a sense of it early on and it was really confirmed once we were actually recording together, is that technically she’s got a great instrument. I think, for her, the emotional expression and the connection are always going to take precedence over any sort of issue of technical execution and perfection. And I think that even in choosing songs, it was really like, “Does she feel like she connects with the songs?”

Bava: I’d love to know about the beautiful album cover. It’s one of my favorite album covers I’ve seen in a long time.

Redman: Oh, thank you. So the great artistic team, the art directors at Blue Note, they found it. With artwork, I kind of made a decision early on that I didn’t want my image on the cover. And I guess if mine wasn’t going to be on, then it didn’t make sense for Gabrielle’s to be on either, although it would’ve been a great image. But I’ve done a lot of records like that and I wanted to find some sort of image that would be evocative of some of the maybe feelings and ideas that might be at work in the record on the album but not definitive, not like, “This is what the album is about.” They sent me a bunch of options but this one resonated. I didn’t know what it was. Someone later told me that they think it’s the photo of an art installation somewhere in Utah. I’m blanking on the name. It’s maybe “The Tunnels?” So I think it’s from somewhere in Utah. But yeah, it was an image that spoke to me and I thought captured some of the feeling, and maybe even some of the ideas that are kind of at work underneath the surface with this music.