Dee Alexander: Free As A Bird

For Dee Alexander, taking flight is both a vocal technique and the realization of a dream. “Rossignol,” from her acclaimed 2009 album, Wild Is the Wind (Blujazz), is named for a North African nightingale that she has adopted as her artistic alter-ego. Her improvisations artfully recreate the songbird’s flight patterns, interspersing forward-thrusting lines with playful flutters, zigzags and swoops. On “Butterfly,” dedicated to another of her winged role models, she unfurls complex filigrees and curlicues that move with disarming quickness, leaving shards of light in their wake.

“I’m about uplifting,” the native Chicagoan explains, when asked about her fascination with airborne creatures. “Hope and joy, and love.” That’s not to say, however, that everything is sweetness and warmth in her musical world. One need only hear the predatory snarl in her voice when she takes on Abbey Lincoln’s caustic “And It’s Supposed to Be Love” (which she has yet to record) to know that she’s as fearless of the dark as she is exultant about the light. “The heart and soul comes from livin’,” she confirms. “You gotta get out there, you gotta play, you gotta experience some things, you gotta get hurt.”

To hear her tell it, though, Alexander’s musical journey has followed an upward trajectory almost since the beginning. She cites artists such as Betty Carter as inspirations, but it was her personal encounters with the freedom-bound visions of vocalist Rita Warford and other Chicago-based musicians, some affiliated with the AACM, that motivated her to forge the unique fusion of rich musical storytelling and no-net risk-taking that has become her trademark.

One of her most important early associations was with percussionist Baba Eli Hoenai’s Prana Ensemble, a group that linked contemporary Western jazz with its Africanist roots. While with Prana, she also met the man who would become her most important mentor, the late woodwind virtuoso “Light” Henry Huff.

“At first I didn’t get it,” she admits about Huff’s challenging music. “It was new to me. He had a talk with me one day. He said, ‘You just gotta be totally uninhibited. You have to become one with the music, and you can’t be concerned about what people think.’

“I have an old recording of some of the stuff we did. I listen and, oh my God! If I’d sat and thought about it, I wouldn’t have done half this stuff! It’s just—out there.”

In the mid-’80s, after about five years with Huff’s group Breath, Alexander struck out on her own. Since then she’s crafted a storehouse of styles that makes her among contemporary jazz’s most eclectic, yet artistically focused, vocalists. She’s as comfortable delivering a Gershwin medley as she is exploring the outer limits of free improvisation with the AACM Great Black Music Ensemble. On club dates she regularly spans the gamut from American songbook standards through refurbished pop hits to variations on themes by trailblazers such as John Coltrane, as well as her own variegated musical and lyric creations.

“It’s been overwhelming,” she says about the praise Wild Is the Wind has garnered. “It’s been better than I ever dreamed or imagined it would be.” But she never forgets where the music comes from, and she always remembers to pay appropriate tribute. Rarely does she let an evening pass without singing Huff’s “You and I,” the disc’s centerpiece, which she offers up as a prayer/paean to her mentor (“Speak to God on my behalf”). Indeed, the entire CD could be construed as both a memorial to Huff and a culmination of her long-running (and still vital) relationship with him.

“I knew that nothing was going to happen,” she says, “until I fulfilled the promise that I made to him, and that was to get all of his music charted, copywritten and published. He made his transition in the early ’90s. The last time I saw him he could barely talk, and he could barely breathe; he said, ‘I want you to get my music out there.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ And with the help of his family we did get that done, and when we got it completed we prayed over it, and I was like, ‘OK, Light, here it is.’ Seemed like as soon as I completed that process we went into the studio, and we did the recording in two five-hour sessions.

“It’s a beautiful thing, I tell you,” she concludes, “this thing called music. Taking chances, not being afraid, being uninhibited, finding new things all the time—it’s an adventure, an odyssey, and I’m glad to be on this ride. My aim is to just keep producing great music that people love. As long as I feel good about whatever it is that I do, it’ll be good.”

Originally published in November 2009

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