Young jazz singers should certainly apprentice themselves by singing standards, and no one begrudges them a recording or two where they place their stamp on the tradition. It was delightful when Cassandra Wilson made her standards album, Blue Skies, and it stands as the best of her early records.
But the challenge in jazz singing today is to move beyond the endless rehashing of “Autumn Leaves”. Some singers never bother; they become permanent imitators of a tradition (and a glorious one) that they may not really understand. When Bille and Ella sang Gershwin, they were interpreting the popular music of their day. Other singers turn to the pop songwriters of today, which can prove tricky in an era where the harmonic content of pop songs offers limited opportunity for jazz embellishment and improvisation.
Dee Dee Bridgewater has labored over both standards and pop/soul during her career in jazz, but Red Earth is something wholly new and wholly wonderful—a thorough exploration of her roots born from a trip to Africa, and a complex engagement with musicians from Mali. Unlike the vast majority of recordings that seem to fuse jazz with African music, this recording blends the two traditions at the rhythmic core. It is a flat-out success, and a joy to listen to.
Despite the obvious African heritage of jazz, few American jazz musicians have been able to create common ground. Bridgewater brought pianist Edsel Gomez and bassist Ira Coleman on her journey. The jazz musicians integrate seamlessly into compositions composed by their Malian hosts; the collective reinterprets several jazz classics as well. Bridgewater shares the stage with many Malian singers, with whom she harmonizes, engages in call-and-response, and translates stories through lyrics. The music sounds perfectly whole—not like jazz with a few African drums or singers, and not like African music with new bebop solos laid awkwardly in.
Examples come from both sides of the Atlantic. When the musicians reinterpret jazz classics, the tunes are given a pulse that is African, but also seems natural to the sing itself. Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” loses its distinctive jazz bass line, but the new feel expertly brings the song to life on a new continent. There is obligato played around the vocal, but it is done by a keening African wind instrument. “Afro Blue” gets a new piano vamp courtesy of Gomez; it sounds Afro-Cuban, but locks in with uncanny beauty to percussion that comes from Mali, including exciting balafon lines that drive the tunes straight to your feet. The closer, a transformed version of the Eddie Harris/Les McCann classic “Compared to What”, is unlikely on first listen, but is irresistible. Merging African music into something that never loses its soul—including during the Malian rap at its center. Injustice, it turns out, is beyond boundary.
The music composed by Bridgewater’s Malian hosts is equally compelling and well-integrated. “Mama Don’t Ever Go Away” is driven by vocal call-and-response and a groove (set up by an African stringed instrument) but when Gomez and Colemen enter, the strong feeling just gets deeper. They never indulge in long jazz interludes, but the sense that McCoy was somehow caught sightseeing in a Malian village is strong. “Oh My Love” is driven by a more contemporary African groove that seems to have been influenced by American rhythm-and-blues, but still climaxes with an improvisation on a traditional African bowed instrument.
Two other tracks stand out as particularly original. Nina Simone’s “Four Women” is arranged by Gomez for balafon, African flute, percussion, piano, and bass. Simone’s words of pride in various African-American skin tones are delivered with style and great attention to the accompanying music, shifting quietly with each portrait. Even better is the Gomez/Bridgewater original “Meanwhile”. Using the same instrumentation, Gomez builds a harmonically surprising “jazz” melody that seems to move out from the mist of the band’s African trip, something entirely new.
Throughout this project, Bridgewater’s singing is about perfect: confident, gutsy, expressive, elastic, and beyond category. The style we know her for seems less affected amidst this new, hybrid tradition, where each voice is just one in a collage of percussion and expression. She operates as if Mali and its music were really her home, and you imagine that is precisely the point—she arrived in a foreign land that wasn’t really all that foreign.
To my ears, this is the most successful African/jazz project in decades, and maybe ever. For the hour you spend listening to Red Earth, jazz singing seems wide open again. And jazz too, is given a new chance to find its roots without strain on this recording, one the best of the year.