What more can be added to “What a Wonderful World,” a song that has been done to death and will forever be associated with the great Louis Armstrong? Dee Dee Bridgewater proves there is still life left in the overplayed standard, slowing down the delivery and allowing for an almost conversational approach to the lyrics that help the well-known sentiments to be heard in a slightly new and different way. It’s this approach to jazz singing that has always set Dee Dee Bridgewater apart from her peers. Whether during her early years within the fusion explosion or career resurgence in the early ‘90s, the now 65-year-old Bridgewater continues to prove herself a creative force to be reckoned with.
Her latest release, Dee Dee Feathers is designed to mark the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and functions as a love letter of sorts to the city of New Orleans and its rich musical history. Partnering with trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, Bridgewater tackles a handful of standards and originals associated with the city itself, showing off a range of styles and sentiments afforded by the city’s rich musical and cultural heritage.
On the rollicking, piano-heavy standard “Big Chief” she enlists the help of Dr. John to imbue the track with a bit of strutting, stuttering New Orleans funk. While the track experiences its fair share of fits and starts, it ultimately descends into a celebratory exposition that then gives way to a sparse passage of vocal scatting that finds Bridgewater quoting a handful of traditional pop and funk tunes while Dr. John eggs her on. By no means a definitive reading, it carries with it a light, playful quality that helps add levity to what could easily have been a far more somber affair, given the devastation caused by Katrina.
An undeniably talented force (see her tour de force performance on “New Orleans”) Bridgewater manages to elevate even the most staid material here with her vibrant performances and clear love of and appreciation for the work. Through the sheer power of her personality, Dee Dee’s Feathers succeeds even where it shouldn’t; the world doesn’t really need another “Saint James Infirmary”, yet Bridgewater still manages to make a case for her own rendition.
Both of Bridgewater’s compositions (“Congo Square” and the title track) forgo chordal instruments in favor of polyrhythmic percussion and layered vocal interplay that adds a new level to the otherwise largely traditional proceedings. An interesting approach that places the focus squarely on Bridgewater’s myriad vocal talents, it would be interesting to hear a full-length release using this stylistic template. Freed from the confines of a traditional jazz arrangement, Bridgewater finds herself loosed to follow the rhythms and melodies where she will, unconfined by the structure imposed by additional instrumentation.
While an adept ballad singer capable of smoldering sentiments and soulful phrasing, Bridgewater seems most at home in the more up-tempo numbers, their freneticism and vitality better suited to her personality. That said, she turns in a lovely reading of “C’est ici que je t’aime” that, while somewhat stylistically out of place coming on the heals of the percussion and vocals-only “Congo Square”, still manages to be affecting, gorgeously rendered with a sympathetic arrangement and highly nuanced phrasing by Bridgewater.
Likewise, the plea for divine aid in the gorgeous, gospel-informed “Come Sunday” allows Bridgewater to show off the subtler, more restrained elements of her range, cooing and purring her way through to the song’s dynamic conclusion. It’s a brilliant performance that stands in sharp contrast to the more lighthearted material that dominates much of the album.
In the end, all the requisite New Orleans musical tropes are present, but each is delivered in such a celebratory, rather than obligatory, manner it can be hard to fault the somewhat stock nature of the slick arrangements and impeccable production. And at the center of it all, Bridgewater continues to do what she does best, turning in yet another powerhouse performance and furthering her case as one of the finest contemporary female jazz singers working today.
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