Apr 15, 2020 9:06 PM
SFJAZZ opened its 2017–’18 season on Sept. 7 with a formidable members-only show by Dee Dee Bridgewater. A tribute to Ella Fitzgerald on the year of her centennial anniversary, it was the first of four different programs and an opportunity to both celebrate the glories of the past and set new milestones.
Bridgewater’s four-night residency harkened back to a time through the early 2000s when certain Bay Area clubs could host artists five and even six nights a week, with shows later in the week accommodating two sets. When musicians are booked for an extended weekend at the SFJAZZ Center, they can choose to do one type of show Thursday through Sunday (as Pat Metheny did when his new quartet made its North American debut during Opening Weekend last year) or present different instrumentations and themes throughout.
As a vocalist with a diverse background whose recorded releases have explored r&b-fueled dance music, Malian traditions and the music of Ellington, Holiday and Kurt Weill, Bridgewater was an inspired choice for this Opening Weekend. Her four separate homages revisited previous albums, premiered a new one and, on the final night, debuted a fourth theme for a world premiere.
“Glad I don’t have any hair on my head,” Bridgewater said in her introduction to her Opening Night show. Otherwise, she joked, she’d be pulling it out while preparing for Sunday’s tribute to Josephine Baker. Randall Kline, SFJAZZ Founder & Executive/Artistic Director, pointed out during his welcoming remarks that for Bridgewater, the Baker tribute was “one she’s never done.”
Having collaborated with Bridgewater since April, electric guitarist Charlton Johnson was on the bandstand for the first four songs of Thursday’s Ella Fitzgerald love festival. Johnson is fellow Memphis native, Bridgewater explained, and with these numbers they’ be paying tribute to Fitzgerald and Joe Pass’ great duo concerts and recordings.
Backed by a black and white picture of the First Lady of Song projected above the elevated rear seats, Johnson played a sparkling introduction to “Satin Doll,” after which he strummed briskly. Bridgewater was soon scatting, possibly including a couple of measures of “I’m Beginning To See The Light.”
Jobim’s “Wave” was punctuated with a rhythmic scat outro, and Bridgewater performed “Moonlight In Vermont” for the first time at Johnson’s suggestion. After revealing that Johnson had also played in the Count Basie Orchestra under the direction of Frank Foster for six years, Bridgewater basked in his simmering introduction to “Cherokee” and participated in some down-tempo call-and-response before the pair accelerated to the standard’s typical fiery pace.
As Johnson exited, Bridgewater introduced pianist Carmen Staaf, double bassist Tabari Lake and drummer Adonis Rose and proceeded to employ what she described as Fitzgerald’s favorite instrumentation. She then deviated from program with an unannounced nod to Sonny Rollins, who celebrated his 87th birthday that day, with a wordless version of his “St. Thomas” that teased the melody until the very end and featured a buoyant Rose solo.
Rose would go on to introduce “(I’d Like To Get You On) A Slow Boat To China” with unaccompanied tambourine. Lake entered the fray before Bridgewater and the rest of the rhythm section joined for closer “Mack The Knife.”
Highlights from the second half included Staaf’s determined solo on “Surrey With The Fringe On Top,” Bridgewater’s humorous Louis Armstrong impression on “Basin Street Blues” and her fluid-as-a-trombone vocal quality on “Stairway To The Stars.”
Toward the end, Lake cheekily hinted at “St. Thomas” while soloing during a firecracker version of “How High The Moon” and again for “Cotton Tail.” Johnson returned for the latter and stayed to duet for the encore, the touching, Kenny Burrell-penned title track to Dear Ella, Bridgewater’s 1997 Verve release and a tribute on which she recorded five other numbers she did on Sept. 8.
Two other albums served as references for Sept. 8 and 9. Bridgewater’s Love And Peace: A Tribute To Horace Silver (Verve, 1995) informed a celebration of the late pianist and composer during which the vocalist was joined by trumpeter Theo Croker’s quintet (saxophonist Irwin Hall, pianist Michael King, double bassist Eric Wheeler and drummer Kush Abadey). She revisited her trombone tone on Friday and joined the other horn players on the front line for an appropriately lively version of Silver’s “Doodlin.”
Saturday evening’s “Memories Of Memphis” concert boasted a nonet, including Johnson. It was in advance of Memphis…Yes, I’m Ready, which will be released by Sony Masterworks on Sept. 15.
“Opening night, I had the jitters. Tonight, I just don’t know,” Bridgewater admitted before delving into Sept. 10’s Josephine Baker program. Throughout the night, she explained Baker’s history and also revealed her historic and creative connection to the late international superstar.
It was Bridgewater’s great aunt, Lottie Gee, who encouraged Baker to move to France. Audra McDonald portrayed Gee in last year’s Broadway musical “Shuffle Along,” and Bridgewater herself lived in Paris for 24 years and earned major French accolades and garnered public adoration.
With many direct personal connections to Baker, Bridgewater said she’d been asked to do plays, musicals and projects about her. “I declined. I don’t know why I said yes to Randall,” she admitted, with a laugh. (The closest she’d come was J’ai Deux Amours French language album from 2005 that had one piece she sang on Sept. 10.)
Before commencing with “La Petite Tonkinoise,” she noted that singing in French isn’t easy, and also that they’d “try to keep the feeling of when it was performed.” Singing again with Croker’s band, she expressed relief after making it through that parlor-esque opening number. The calypso “Don’t Touch Me Tomatoes” showed off Bridgewater’s—and Baker’s—playful side, and she got to flex some vocal muscles with a duo introduction to “Blue Skies” paired with Abadey’s skilled brushwork.
“Don Mon Village” featured three distinct lyrical sections—sung French, spoken French and sung English. “Bye Bye Blackbird” showcased Hall with an energized, slightly spry solo, and King requested beforehand that Bridgewater tackle “La Mer” (and returned the favor with an inspired solo).
After intermission, Bridgewater did a visual survey to see who in the audience had adult beverages placed in SFJAZZ Center’s trademark cup holders. “As soon as this is over, I’m having one,” she declared, punctuated with a vivacious laugh. On “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” she again joined the frontline and vocalized to form a three-horn attack. She and Wheeler created a duo for the introduction to “Honeysuckle Rose” and later expanded to a vocal trio when Abadey joined in.
With Luis Miguel’s “Besame Mucho,” she added a third language to the night and sang in Spanish. “April In Paris” and then “Brazil” provided contrasts in mood, tone and rhythm.
Baker’s trademark song, “J’ai Deux Amours,” was the penultimate selection with Bob Dylan’s “The Time’s They Are A-Changin’” as the surprise closer. Dylan was in the audience when Baker sang it at her last concert, and he proclaimed hers the most magnificent version of his song that he’d ever heard,” Bridgewater shared.
The only American to have been inducted into the Haut Conseil de la Francophonie and a Chevalier Des Arts Commendation recipient, Bridgewater concluded by declaring that it “would not have been possible without this trailblazer” as she pointed up to Baker’s black & white portrait. DB
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