A friend of mine, a young bass player, says that for jazz musicians, working with a singer is a definite compromise, a sell-out just to please an audience. My friend contends that the creativity musicians get by speaking to each other through their instruments is far more powerful and suggestive than what happens when the music is limited by a human voice singing mere words.
One wonders how the combo working with Dee Dee Bridgewater on her new live album would react to this idea. For one thing, they might point out that the voice can be a very supple instrument, especially for a scat singer like Bridgewater. (Note: If you don’t like scat singing, don’t buy this album. Dee Dee scats whenever possible.) And it’s not just the Ella Fitzgerald variety on display here; on “Stairway to the Stars” Bridgewater does a muted trumpet imitation that would make Bobby McFerrin proud. Moreover, the musicians do get the opportunity to play. Thomas Bramerie takes his double bass through a hyper-tempo “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.” Thierry Eliez has a frenetic organ workout on “Cherokee.” Drummer Ali Jackson gets a long solo on Duke Ellington’s “Cotton Tail.”
Bridgewater herself is clearly energized by the crowd, although but there’s a downside as well. The long (almost three minute!) monologue about the Oakland boat show that introduces “Slow Boat to China” is, like most extended stage talking on a live album, extremely tedious on repeated listening. Similarly, the sex chat in the 14-minute take on Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” might have been titillating in person, but on record it gets old soon.
Bridgewater does do a nice job of updating the nine songs she has chosen, nearly all of which are well-worn chestnuts. One exception is a short rendition of James Brown’s “Sex Machine.” (An aside: I wish the entire album were devoted to newer material: it’s taking jazz players far too long to recognize that the new standards for their art are to be found in the rock and roll and funk classics of the last 50 years. See, for example, Lester Bowie’s Avant-Pop for a superb example of what can be done in this vein.) As it is, the material is about evenly divided between up-tempo numbers and slower songs around which she can wrap her big, emotional voice.
Live at Yoshi’s is a good album. My bass playing friend would probably argue that it would have been more interesting with the trio playing alone, but think of all the fantastic music we would have missed if the accompanists who played with Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn singers with whom Bridgewater has been favorably compared had made the same shaky argument.