Singing Cool and Hot

Cassandra Wilson and Dee Dee Bridgewater Enter the Pantheon

The forthcoming album is a contender for best-to-date, assimilating diverse material with disarming ease. The dour "Wichita Lineman" is perhaps the ultimate representation here of the axiom "It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it." She slows it down to a mid-afternoon glide, puts the lyric in the third person, and unfolds the story as if were blues. For "Darkness on the Delta," a 1930s standard popularized by Mildred Bailey and later adopted by New Orleans revivalists and Thelonious Monk, she is backed solely by pianist Boogaloo Ames; a choir of children accompany her on "Waters of March"; India.Arie shares the vocal on her original, "Just Another Parade"; an old friend of Wilson's, Rhonda Richmond, wrote and plays piano on "Road So Clear," with Olu Dara on trumpet. She gives a particularly shrewd reading to Bob Dylan's "Shelter From the Storm" and closes with the most upbeat and unlikely of Johnson's delta visions, "Hot Tamales." Indeed, not unlike "Love and Theft," Belly of the Sun suggests a compendium of American music, specifically that of someone who came of age in the early '70s, and wasn't afraid to turn the knob on her radio. Yet almost every piece is made to reflect the singer's Mississippi roots. It should be a big hit.

Dee Dee Bridgewater is something else again: a consummate entertainer of the old school—funny, ribald, unpredictable, frequently outrageous. No other jazz singer has ever played so exhaustively with her sexuality. Someday one of the ringside patrons she fondles and bats her eyes at is going to keel over dead. And yet she is also one of the hardest-swinging musicians alive, almost relentless in her energy. Accompanied by a trio led by her longtime pianist and organist, Thierry Eliez, she walked out onto the Iridium stage singing the vamp to "All Blues," and was soon scatting through at least three octaves of her glistening voice, aggressive and gritty, a demonstration of full-frontal id, holding nothing back, her body advancing from body English to dance to near-calisthenics. It was the kind of number the old pros put at the end of a set, because what could follow it? For Bridgewater, it was just an hors d'oeuvre.

If Wilson is laid-back and cool in the belly of the Mississippi sun, Bridgewater, who was born in Memphis but raised in Michigan, is almost always scorching. Having paid wicked homage to Horace Silver and canny respects to Ella Fitzgerald on previous albums (though a better place to start is Live at Yoshi's), she will devote her next album to Kurt Weill (typical Dee Dee one-liner: "It's coming . . . and so am I"), and most of her set served as a preview: "September Song," "Speak Low," "My Ship," "This Is New." She drew on her powerful vibrato to accent the beat in the slow-motion verses, then opened up on the choruses—rising to the top of her range with improvisational crescents that recalled the Dinah Washington who matched high notes with a trinity of trumpet players on Dinah Jams. "We're a little timid with these songs," she said, "because we just rehearsed them." Actually, she was exhausting, and the superbly modulated "My Ship"—a ballad qua ballad—was a gratefully received respite.

Funny, ribald, unpredictable, outrageous Dee Dee Bridgewater
photo: Ebet Roberts
Funny, ribald, unpredictable, outrageous Dee Dee Bridgewater

Silver's "Cookin' at the Continental," a Bridgewater specialty that didn't make her Love and Peace album, was more characteristic, taken way up, spotted by a healthy organ solo, but never more vigorous than in the singer's emphatic drive. Happily, a fan asked her for "Come Sunday," and, cradled by Ira Coleman's arco bass, she perched herself on a stool and burnished every note, every syllable; I've never heard a more stark and persuasive version, and can't imagine why she doesn't settle down more often. From Ellington's God of love, she snapped into familiar territory ("let's talk about sex, baby") with what has become a signature closer that she really would be hard-pressed to follow. Her near literal interpretation of "Love for Sale" is an extended fantasia with autoerotic gestures, dancing, and audience-caressing, and it had half the audience shimmying in its seats. When the lights went up on her 75-minute set, she was still scatting one last chorus. Call it a defiant gesture to prove that jazz singing is still diverse, and still in flower.

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