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By Sascha Feinstein
The first minutes of where are we, saxophonist Joshua Redman’s debut on Blue Note as well as his first project with vocals, offer tremendous promise. Unaccompanied, Redman alludes to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” before unfurling phrases imbued with anguish. The song’s title, “After Minneapolis (face toward mo[u]rning),” and opening lyric (“Knee on neck”) insist that we once again confront the George Floyd tragedy, and as we travel through the U.S. — each cut on the CD invokes a different state — the music keeps returning to themes of yearning and loss.
Co-winner of the 2021 Sarah Vaughan Jazz Vocal Competition, Gabrielle Cavassa sings on nine of the 13 tracks. She has a pleasant, unassuming voice and delivers lyrics more than she inhabits them. (Some shaky intonation issues climax with a startling clunker on “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?”) Of the guest artists, guitarist Peter Bernstein stands out; he solos with great lyricism on Rodgers and Hart’s “Manhattan.” In effect, where are we largely comes across as a good vocal album with a dazzling tenor player as a sideman.
Indeed, when Redman holds court, he plays not merely with authority but with great invention and sensitivity. This is highlighted by a medley toward the album’s end where Redman opens, again unaccompanied, with 16 seconds of “Alabama,” Coltrane’s homage to the four African-American girls killed in Birmingham in 1963. Cavassa then joins him for a duo rendition of “Stars Fell on Alabama,” with Redman providing captivating harmony and filigreed phrases. Then the tight rhythm section —pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Brian Blade — backs the leader for an eight-minute return to Trane’s elegy. This medley, in combination with the album’s opening track, makes the question of “where we are” a haunting one indeed.