Jazz Review: Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour — A Band of Virtuosic Veterans

Vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater’s exuberance proved contagious in this performance featuring a remarkable group of jazz all-stars under the genial direction of bassist Christian McBride.

Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour: Dee Dee Bridgewater, vocals; Christian McBride, bass; Ambrose Akinmusire, trumpet; Chris Potter, saxophone; Benny Green, piano; Lewis Nash, drums. Presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston. At the Berklee Performance Center, January 31.

By Michael Ullman

Dee Dee Bridgewater — one of the most accomplished jazz vocalists alive.

The Monterey Jazz Festival is celebrating its 55th year by sponsoring a tour of this remarkable group of all-stars under the genial direction of bassist Christian McBride and featuring one of the most accomplished jazz vocalists alive, Dee Dee Bridgewater. Bridgewater is a wonder, with a full, rich voice, a range that would make a gospel singer jealous, and an ability to scat or simply improvise lyrics that makes one want to compare her to Ella Fitzgerald. Bridgewater is her own funky self, whether she is singing Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” negotiating a Horace Silver blues, or belting out be-bop. She opened the concert in a duet on “I’m Beginning to See the Light” with McBride, who mentioned that he was playing the great Ray Brown’s bass. Their joy at generating an almost whimsical interaction between virtuoso bass and virtuoso singer was sustained throughout the evening.

Bridgewater’s exuberance proved contagious. Stimulated by her own version of “God Bless the Child,” which Holiday herself sang in 1958 at the first Monterey Jazz Festival, Bridgewater introduced the next tune, “East of the Sun,” with an extended improvisation (mostly on the words ‘East of the Sun’), in which she sounded convincingly like a gospel preacher spreading the good news. (“East of the Sun” turned out to be a feature for McBride, who played the melody in octaves and later joked that it hurt.)

The band of mostly veterans demonstrated virtuosity, flexibility, and compatibility. Few saxophonists have Chris Potter’s range or resourcefulness. He can play totally improvised duets, as he has proved with bassist Dave Holland, stomp his own version of blues, with slightly recherché harmonies, as he did in this concert, and provide the perfect obligatto to Bridgewater’s phrases on a ballad. On Benny Green’s 25-year-old bebopping original, “Certainly,” Potter made use of his hefty tone to build a fluid, intriguing solo that moved all over his horn. He is a brilliant performer whose phrases seem to come so easily one focuses on their substance. After Potter finished with a flourish and a fragment of a Thelonious Monk tune, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, the youngster of the group, entered with a series of fragmentary phrases that showed he was listening to Potter and wanted to do something different.

The sensitivity of the rhythm section was striking as well. Pianist Benny Green played a sweeping glissando in the middle of his solo on Bobby Hutcherson’s “Highway One,” then moved suddenly to a more insistent beat: immediately drummer Lewis Nash was there with a hint of a backbeat. The climax of the concert was a rendition, with words that the composer wrote for Bridgewater, of Horace Silver’s “Filthy McNasty.’ When, in 1961, Silver recorded his tune on Doin’ the Thing, he announced that it was about “a mythical young man of rather dubious character.” The group rocked it in an intelligent, even fascinating, way that should have pleased even its demanding composer.

One odd, if not sour, note was that Bridgewater seemed uneasy about the tastes of the elderly crowd of subscribers to the Celebrity Series of Boston, which is known for presenting classical music performances. At one point, she did her version of a Boston Brahmin accent and then amusingly parodied the “Toreador Song” from Carmen. She needn’t have worried about a lack of appreciation of the evening’s music: many in the audience had as long, if not as deep, an experience with jazz as the singer herself.

Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.

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