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Dee Dee Bridgewater: Finding Africa

Dee Dee Bridgewater

When vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater first landed in Mali, she was greeted as a long-lost relative. Literally.

Upon leaving the airport in the capital of Bamako, she was accosted by an older man, and when she couldn’t understand what he was saying he just grew more insistent. Malian producer Cheikh-Tidiane Seck, Bridgewater’s local musical contact, informed her that the man thought she was his niece who had immigrated to France, and now that she was back in Mali she was putting on airs, pretending not to know him.

Bridgewater may not have found a long-lost uncle, but in making her latest album, Red Earth (EmArcy), she has claimed her African heritage and forged a startlingly effective African jazz sound with some of Mali’s leading musicians. Traveling with her working quartet, featuring Puerto Rican pianist Edsel Gomez, bassist Ira Coleman and Argentine percussionist Minino Garay, Bridgewater combined traditional West African instrumentation with a jazz rhythm section to interpret ancient standards from the griot tradition and new pieces commenting on life in Mali from a female perspective. She’s hardly the first American jazz musician to collaborate with West African artists, but few have created such a compelling synthesis, working from the ground up.

“This red earth has possessed me all my life, and when I got off the plane and saw it in Mali, I knew I had come home,” Bridgewater says. “Everywhere I looked I saw people who looked familiar. The customs that they have are customs that black Americans have today. Ira came to me and said, ‘Dee Dee, it’s answered so many questions about why I think the way I do and why I am the way I am.’ This music is so rich. It’s completed me. I feel like I’ve really found my own voice and I can’t go back and do traditional jazz. We played a cruise for the North Sea Jazz Festival a few months ago with just a trio, and after the gig Ira, Edsel and I were like, ‘That was weird.’ I don’t know that my straightahead career is finished, but I’m already planning the next album in Mali.”

While Bridgewater’s immersion in Mali’s famously rich music culture wasn’t an obvious path for her, no other jazz singer in recent decades has created such a diverse body of work. From her brilliant hard-bop tribute to Horace Silver on 1995’s Love and Peace to her emotionally taut exploration of the music of Kurt Weill on 2002’s This is New and her love letter to France on 2005’s J’ai Deux Amours (“Two Loves Have I”), Bridgewater has created a series of highly personal projects that reach far beyond the standard repertoire. She doesn’t entirely abandon the jazz canon on Red Earth, opening the album with “Afro Blue,” which was also the title track of her debut record in 1974. Her version of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” with her original lyric, serves as a moment of calm introspection on an otherwise raucous album that concludes with a ferocious version of “Compared to What.”

In a canny move, she uses Nina Simone’s “Four Women” as a bridge connecting the world of jazz matriarchs with Mali’s tradition of powerful female vocalists. The most memorable tracks on Red Earth find Bridgewater in various forms of dialogue with incandescent Malian stars. On “Bambo,” an influential protest against polygamy, she joins the song’s composer, Tata Bambo Kouyate. Bridgewater seems slightly awed by the great Wassoulou vocalist Oumou Sangaré on “Djarabi” (“Oh My Love”), while the young Kabiné Kouyaté is an eager jazz pupil on “The Griots.” Bridgewater doesn’t attempt to sing literal English translations, but on some pieces, like the heartrending “Mama Digna Sara Ye” (“Mama Don’t Ever Go Away”), she captures the tune’s incantatory phrasing and narrative momentum with a bluesy authority.

“For me, it was such a joy to have the opportunity to work with other singers who came from a place of love and sharing, with no competition,” Bridgewater says. “I’ve wanted to do that with American singers, and when I approach people it gets very touchy. It was so amazing to go to this country and receive this welcome: the prodigal son who finds his way home. Everybody says I’m from a northern tribe called the Peul. People talk to me in Bambara. It’s just amazing, to feel in your spirit that you know this music and these rhythms, and to see and hear and experience how jazz is an extension of that music.”

Originally Published