WBGO Radar

Rodney Whitaker: When We Find Ourselves Alone

bassist rodney whitaker

Rodney Whitaker’s When We Find Ourselves Alone showcases his creative growth as a bassist and composer since leaving the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in 2003, after six years.

For the album, his eighth as a leader, he gathers saxophonist Antonio Hart, pianist Bruce Barth and drummer Gregory Hutchinson—all fellow travelers through music over two decades.

“Quartet with saxophone is really my voice,” says Whitaker. “When you’re from Detroit, you don’t compartmentalize or segregate music. You play funk, you play bebop and you play gospel.”

Reinforcing the family feel, Whitaker’s daughter, Rockelle Fortin, sings on five selections.

The ambiance on this album, which has five original compositions and six arrangements, is similar to what Whitaker has done on earlier releases, on which the leader drew repertoire from several stylistic tributaries. The band navigates the long-standing forms of the jazz tradition with individualistic tonal personalities and soul.

“The World Falls Away” is a medium swinger propelled by Hutchinson’s crisp beats and highlighted by Hart’s impassioned, melodic declamation. “It was Valentine’s Day, and I’d had a bad day,” says Whitaker. “My wife gave me a card that talked about the rigors and challenges of life, and at the end said, ‘But at night, when we’re together and lying in each other’s arms, the world falls away.’”

A thread of joyous nostalgia infuses “When You Played With Roy,” an homage to trumpeter Roy Hargrove with a bossa feel. Whitaker’s brief opening solo displays his abundant technique and creativity, qualities that also animate Hutchinson’s exchanges with the soloists.

“Everywhere I play, people approach me and say, ‘I loved it when you played with Roy Hargrove,’” Whitaker says. “I started thinking about turning that title into a theme that would capture the joy of performing with Roy, and the joy people got from hearing the group live.”

Whitaker bows a plush introduction to “Autumn Leaves,” then switches to pizzicato for a dramatic rubato duo with his daughter, whose stately rendering of the lyric foreshadows a cogent scat solo once the tempo morphs to swing.

Hart’s pure soprano saxophone tone illuminates the poignant long notes that open “Jamerson’s Lullaby,” an homage to Motown session bassist James Jamerson, which also evokes the sadness that Whitaker’s five-year-old son, Jamerson, experiences when it is time to go to bed. Whitaker adds, “He looks at you and smiles, and it’s so infectious it makes you happy,”—in this case, a mood-switch denoted with a change to major key in the B-section.

Fortin channels her inner Carmen McRae on “You Go To My Head,” enlivened by Hutchinson’s neo-hip-hop pocket and ascendant solos by Hart, Barth and Whitaker. Then Whitaker creates a polyrhythmic bass line to maneuver “Invitation”—one of several homages to tenor saxophone immortal Joe Henderson that he has recorded—away from well-traveled routes.

“Freedom Day,” is an Oscar Brown song depicting the end of slavery at the end of the Civil War that Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln memorably recorded in 1960 on We Insist! After Fortin’s intense delivery of the lyric, and fierce statements by Hart and Barth, Hutchinson displays his rarefied position on the drum tree with a solo that dialogues with Roach’s drum oratory from half-a-century ago.

Whitaker composed the title track two years ago as a commissioned work titled Jazz Up South on the topic of migration stories. Solos by Barth and Hart evoke inflamed emotions and love denied.

“For me, the story is a metaphor for life, when people don’t pursue their dreams," Whitaker says. "My compass has always been to do first what brings joy to my life.”

"When I’m telling a story or putting together a set, I want to attend to the whole person,” the bassist says. “Sometimes you’ve got to talk about the unpleasant to get to joy, but ultimately it should all end with joy.”

  - Tim Wilkins, WBGO digital content producer

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