Oct 17, 2023 3:36 PM
Carla Bley, Provocative Composer-Pianist, Dies at Age 87
With her iconic bangs, sharp features and free-flowing sense of the absurd, Carla Bley, who died Oct. 17 of brain…
“It just occurred to me just the other day,” said Joshua Redman, a bemused expression forming over his face on the computer screen. “It’s actually somewhat ironic that it’s the iconic song about San Francisco, and it actually doesn’t have a bridge. There’s no bridge to the song, you know? It’s ‘A/A-prime,’” explaining the sections of a beloved tune. “And I guess the lyrics don’t actually ever mention the bridge.”
The song in question was, of course, “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” introduced to the world by Tony Bennett. (See our tribute on page 44.) Despite their deep connection to jazz and to the City by the Bay, the two would never meet, for Bennett passed away in July at age 96, making prescient Redman’s decision to record that singer’s signature song.
“I had no idea when we were recording it he would pass right before the album was released,” said Redman, a truism that would be shocking if it wasn’t. Rather, the tenor saxophonist included the song in line with a theme of songs about places on his latest album, where are we (Blue Note).
It’s Redman’s 16th as a leader, but a first in numerous ways. It’s the first time he’s included a vocalist, in the person of Gabrielle Cavassa. The 29-year-old singer resides in New Orleans, but she went to college in San Francisco and began her career there. “She has a connection to the place, too, so it made sense for us to do it,” said Redman.
Cavassa, a co-winner of the 2021 International Sarah Vaughan Jazz Vocal Competition, was “discovered” by Redman through his manager, who heard Cavassa singing at a social gathering in New Orleans, and immediately texted him. “We had talked about maybe someday doing something with a vocalist,” he recalled, nonetheless amused that his business manager was offering music recommendations. He’s glad she did.
“She just draws you in,” said Redman of his new bandmate. “It’s kind of an intimacy and a vulnerability that she has, in her expression, in her sound, that is captivating and unique.” The two spent months texting each other during the COVID lockdown, laying the groundwork for the new album.
“I was surprised and excited to discover that Joshua was very interested in collaboration,” said Cavassa. “He could easily have made all the decisions and just called me to sing the tunes. But that was not at all our process — he empowered me to be involved in every aspect of the creative journey.”
Where are we is also Redman’s debut album as an artist for Blue Note Records. “From day one, Joshua was high on our secret wish list,” said Don Was, Blue Note president, in an email to DownBeat. “But he was in the middle of a long and very successful relationship with Nonesuch — a label that I have tremendous respect for. However, when his management informed us that he was out of contract and wanting to have a discussion, we jumped at the opportunity and never looked back. It’s a great honor to finally be able to work with him.”
Redman added, “I was blessed to have been on Nonesuch, had an amazing run there … but I guess it’s just part of the journey. … Blue Note music has been such an integral part of my musical and life experience for so long. … It’s surreal to be a part of this lineage.”
Another first for Redman is creating a concept album. “I came up with this idea of songs about places in America … it’s a somewhat contrived concept,” he admitted. “We needed something nonmusical to be what I thought was just a starting point.”
Redman also thought to do what he calls “mashups,” fitting two distinct songs together somehow, connected to each other only by the name of a locale. This is why Thelonious Monk’s “San Francisco Holiday” intermingles with “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” or why Charles Ives’ composition “Three Places In New England” morphs into “New England,” an obscure standard made less so by Betty Carter.
Perhaps the most successful is the unlikely pairing of “Goin’ To Chicago Blues,” originally performed by Count Basie and Jimmy Rushing, with “Chicago,” the alt-rock anthem by indie musician Sufjan Stevens. Redman figured out how to adapt the original triadic sequence in the Stevens song to work harmonically over a blues form. Cavassa was then able to sing the original melody from the Basie/Rushing blues, while Redman countered on saxophone with Stevens’ melody. It’s a clever blues reharmonization that simultaneously captures two very different Chicago moods.
“It’s got a certain kind of poignancy and melancholy that comes from that kind of folk-rock, alternative thing,” offered Redman. “And then the poignancy and melancholy that comes from the Black blues thing. And, somehow, they fuse.” It’s a blues that speaks to multiple cultures, a true multicultural blues.
What seemed a whimsical experiment began revealing another layer. “[Gabrielle] thought that ‘Stars Fell On Alabama’ would be a nice one to sing,” said Redman. “Immediately after we decided to do it, I thought about doing [John] Coltrane’s ‘Alabama,’ putting them in juxtaposition, in dialogue with one another.”
Let’s pause to contemplate this juxtaposition: A romantic evening in the genteel, Antebellum South during the Leonid meteor shower of 1833, a lovely (and fair) couple kissing underneath the falling stars … alongside Coltrane’s impassioned response to the heinous murder by the Ku Klux Klan of four Black girls from the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Sept. 15, 1963.
“They obviously are two very different representations of the American South,” Redman conceded, “and two very different kinds of, in a way, representations of America.” In every way, except where.
Redman contributed one original composition to this collection of emotionally charged songs. His composition “After Minneapolis” begins:
Knee on neck, near naked night, colors cleave
Fear forms hate in faithless fight, love that leaves
Arc that bends forever long
Will it even stretch past this song?
Turn right from a wrong?
Redman’s poetry alludes to a killing in 2020 that the world watched together, yet alone, in our isolation during the pandemic. Joshua Redman watched, too, alone with his thoughts.
A few weeks later, he was outside his house, basking in the warm Bay Area sun, peering through darkened glasses into his phone at this same interviewer. He unveiled what had been on his mind.
“It made me think more than ever before about my own role as an artist, or lack of a role,” Redman said then. “I’ve always been someone with pretty strong political and moral, social convictions, but … I’ve never really been a musician who has put those convictions front and center as an artist. I haven’t used whatever platform I’ve had to make explicit political or social statements. Is that on some level an abdication of responsibility? Have I been complicit in this horrific system by not actively using whatever platform I have to explicitly condemn it or speak out against it?”
Hearing those sentiments read back to him now, he reflected. “Those are some heavy words, you know? Heavy and heady times — not just heady times but bodily. … I felt like I could feel in my body a certain sort of anguish and suffering and tumult, but also maybe some sense of hope and optimism, and also just gratitude for being able to breathe,” he said. Unsaid in the earlier interview was the fact that those feelings had already prompted him to write “After Minneapolis,” only five days removed from those terrible moments.
Redman had a melody then, but no words. Like Coltrane, the music was still an abstract expression of a literal event. “You know, even after I put it to lyrics it, [the song] doesn’t ever specifically mention the murder of George Floyd, so it’s not just about that,” he cautioned, “but it’s obviously grappling with a lot of ideas and emotions and questions that came out of that [act].”
Redman continued, “Obviously, the song does address social and political concerns in a way that no other song I’ve written has, and I suppose one theme of the album is a sort of questioning, an examination of America. … You know, the American reality versus the American dream.”
Redman illuminated this in “After Minneapolis” with another mashup — prefacing the song with a solo version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” his saxophone intoning irony over affirmation.
This is new and uncomfortable territory for Redman; it’s understandable if he wouldn’t allow himself to enter it fully. He cautioned, “This idea of creating music that explicitly and directly addresses or makes a certain sort of explicit statement about social justice or about politics … I feel like I haven’t done that here.” And yet, “After Minneapolis” is the first track on the new album, the first notes he composed while thinking about these weighty issues in isolation, the first we hear of the new music he’d written since the pandemic. Implications are enough.
That front-loading of heaviness is counter-balanced with “Alabama” as the penultimate moment of the album. Regarding this symmetry, Redman, draped in his ever-present cloak of humility, demurs, “I am not in any way trying to insert myself into or make an argument that I belong in the pantheon of — well, first of all, great tenor saxophonists, in general, let alone the greatest, John Coltrane. … It’s not like this is my ‘Alabama.’”
Myriad valid arguments exist to place Redman somewhere in that pantheon, but, regardless, it should be noted that 60 years to the month of that fateful Birmingham bombing, another prominent saxophonist is playing a sorrowful melody for Black lives that didn’t matter enough, for a hope that is sensed but still, still unseen. It begs the question: Where are we, truly, along the long arc of history, and does it bend toward justice?
This album, however, is hardly a dour discourse on the ills of society. Redman and Cavassa handpicked songs that reflect many facets of life and love, encompassing the breadth of human experience, a mirror of Redman’s own viewpoint.
“Most of the music that I love has at its core a sense of both joyfulness and exultation, but also poignancy and melancholy,” he said. “This is kind of what the blues is for me. … It engages with hardship and suffering, but it’s also ultimately an affirmative experience, an uplifting experience and a joyful experience.”
Redman also finally feels able to express those things more fully through his horn. “This album probably represents the strongest and the most lyrical and melodic playing that I’ve done. … It’s somewhat ironic that at the time where I feel like I’ve finally found [that], I kind of step aside and cede that authority to a vocalist.”
Redman’s interactive chemistry with Cavassa evokes another, historic saxophone-vocal pairing, that of Lester Young and Billie Holiday. “I’m [usually] the lead voice,” he said, “and it’s liberating not to be that anymore, and yet somehow by not being that, I was able to have a stronger lyrical presence.”
Redman’s willingness to relinquish the lead was not lost on Cavassa. “Joshua took a huge creative risk in not only making a vocal record, but in trusting a relatively unknown singer — me — with such a huge role,” she said. “He is extraordinarily open-minded and collaborative. … This, I realized, is how you become prolific.”
In addition to Cavassa, Redman sought others with that same lyricism. “I wanted to get the most melodic jazz musicians I could think of, and each one of these musicians is,” he said about pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Joe Sanders and his longtime friend, drummer Brian Blade. Redman has worked with all three in different settings but was surprised to learn Parks and Sanders had never played with Blade. “I felt like it would be instant chemistry,” he said.
Redman also enlisted a few guest artists who would represent the cities of the songs they selected: vibraphonist Joel Ross (Chicago), guitarists Kurt Rosenwinkel (Philadelphia) and Peter Bernstein (Manhattan), and trumpeter Nicholas Payton (New Orleans).
Redman also was looking for those who “generate a deep, natural, organic groove” for the songs in particular that tread outside the jazz canon. In addition to Stevens’ “Chicago,” they include the Bruce Springsteen hit “Streets Of Philadelphia”; “Baltimore,” by eclectic pianist-singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane; and the Glen Campbell heart-render “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” suggested by Parks, who, having first played with Redman more than a decade ago in their collaborative band James Farm, was glad for another opportunity.
“Josh is a seeker,” the pianist said in an email exchange. “He has a way of cultivating challenges for himself, choosing to put himself in situations that create the necessary conditions for evolution. What I notice now in his playing more than ever is an ‘at-home-ness,’ an embodied wisdom, a trust in his own lyricism.”
Parks also delighted in playing with Blade, noting, “The hookup with him and Joe was so easeful and natural.”
“The amazing thing about Brian, you just know he’s just going to come up with the perfect groove,” said Redman of Blade, who utilizes that ability frequently with another Blue Note artist, Norah Jones. Strikingly, Redman’s pop/rock-adjacent leanings with the rapturous voice of Cavassa is in the mold of what Jones has done in helping Blue Note to expand into new forms of artistry.
Of course, Redman’s pedigree as a straightahead jazz musician is unquestioned, but Don Was learned early on of Redman’s capacity to cross over when Was first tapped Redman in the late 1990s to play on a Garth Brooks record he was producing. “We both share an enthusiasm for defying genre-based expectations, and he was clearly undaunted by the unfamiliar,” said Was.
Those sentiments are why an album like this can exist — where Basie, Coltrane, Guthrie, Glen Campbell and Sufjan Stevens all co-exist, how a murder in Minneapolis or Baltimore can be reflected on while basking in the warm Bay Area sun or the glow of sunset over Golden Gate. That bridge seemingly doesn’t exist in Tony Bennett’s musical homage, but perhaps the bridge is Redman himself.
He has bridged the generation gap to uplift an up-and-coming vocalist, their album a bridge to talented musicians who had yet to play together. He has bridged cultures and genres of music that cross over unto themselves, and he found a way to bridge the tragic events of history with our current tragedies. He has even become a bridge for Blue Note, between the monuments of the label’s past jazz heroes to the wide-open field of its emerging artists.
Conversely, he laments the frequent absence of a bridge between the American dream and the American reality. And, ultimately, Redman would have us learn to bridge the different aspects of our lives — the joys, the challenges, the romance, the heartbreak, life, death, memories, visions, stars, streets … we cross all of it on our own bridge, on the long arc to somewhere, where we were to where are we, to where we will be. DB
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