Jazz Review

May 5, 2015

Dee Dee Bridgewater

Red Earth: A Malian Journey by Dee Dee Bridgewater

Free-ranging melodies are accented with the syncopation of various percussion instruments, as images of trickling waters, tropical safaris, colorful fabric wraps and a sea of multicolored skin tones are painted on a virtual canvas. An expanse of red earth can be seen adjacent to the River Niger, the sun fixed intensely in the afternoon sky. No matter the point of origin, transporting to this distant locale and warm climate is made possible by the musicality of Dee Dee Bridgewater's Red Earth: A Malian Journey.

Ms. Bridgewater is an accomplished jazz vocalist and songwriter, with a long history of performing a diverse catalog of music. As one of the United Nations' first Ambassadors for the Food and Agriculture Organization, she had the opportunity to travel to many African countries. She took advantage of the time to collect music from the rich diversity of styles along the way. Finally, she felt instinctively that her jazz scatting ability was compatible with the sounds of Mali, including their brand of "blues." She also noticed her strong physical resemblance to the people of the 'Peul' tribe. Through music, she had "traced" her roots to a particular spot on the African continent, a feat that is quite challenging for members of the African diaspora. Her overall cultural experiences during her travels set the stage for creating an album that combines the traditions of jazz with the instrumentation of Malian music.

Through this work, she manages to highlight the influence and roles of women in Malian politics and culture. She purposely features outspoken female vocalists and rising stars such as Oumou Sangaré and Fatoumata Kouyaté. Her inclusion of jazz singer/composer Nina Simone's "Four Women" continues the African storytelling tradition in a sultry fashion, defiantly introducing a range of female archetypes over fluttery flute, stoic piano and punctuating percussion. The song "No More (Bambo)" was selected for the album due to its powerful effect on the government to end forced marriage in the 1960s. The marriage of her jazz background and the Malian tradition is definitely not forced, inexplicably organic in her lyrical interpretations, "bridging" a connection between both sides of the Atlantic.

Dee Dee wrote many of the lyrics to accompany the virtuosity of her newfound family of musicians and collaborators. Her narrative is born out of her touring the various regions and cultures, accessing what may not have been available without her Goodwill Ambassador role. The melancholy lullaby of "Meanwhile" speaks to hunger and aid, while hinting at the associated neglect and hypocrisy. Over sing-song piano tinkling, she makes a gentle plea for someone to "help me."

Along with updating arrangements of select Malian musical stories, Dee Dee reworks a jazz classic like Mongo Santamaría's "Afro Blue." She tells the tale of seductively dancing lovers, set in shades of cocoa and midnight. The instrumentation is successful at portraying the backdrop of "whispering trees," while the rhythmic patterns give us a voyeuristic peek at the couple, oblivious to all but each other. This is the song that caused me to purchase the album.

Here is an American jazz artist that seeks out her ancestral roots, not by researching documents and records, but through the spirituality of music. The diversity of instrumentation is likened to the various shades of people she has connected with, contently feeling that she has finally made it "home." A result of this journey is the inspiration for women of color to break from any intentional disconnect of their heritage to fully embrace their "darker" self.

Album Pick:
"Afro Blue" is a jazz classic that creatively incorporates traditional Malian instruments along with more standard jazz instruments. The song's sexy rhythm has a sophisticated cluster-and-pause pace, the gaps filled with melodic percussion. Dee Dee Bridgewater's vocals play a lively game of chase with intricately woven layers of musical bliss.

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