Bridgewater right at home with latest CD

ON POPULAR MUSIC

October 11, 2007|By RASHOD D. OLLISON

Dee Dee Bridgewater almost croons her instructions to her blind Coton de Tulear. "Follow my voice, baby. Come on now. Mama's here."

The jazz star is calling me from her home in Henderson, Nev., and she has me on hold. I hear her snap her fingers at the dog. Now she speaks her instructions in French, her voice sweet and lilting.

But when the singer-actress returns to the phone to discuss her new album, the enriching Red Earth: A Malian Journey, the honey in her voice is gone. Her earthy Midwestern flavor comes through.

"Now, Rashod," says the Flint, Mich.-raised performer. "You're a brother, right?"

"All day and night."

"Well, then, let me tell you: With this album, my concern was that my people, our people, would hear it and maybe it would inspire other brothers and sisters to make that connection with Africa. With this record, I've come full circle."

Red Earth, Bridgewater's 16th album, is unlike any of her previous efforts. The 57-year-old Grammy and Tony Award winner literally went to the Motherland to make the CD. On it, she melds her ancestral Malian roots with 30-plus years of jazz vocalization experience. Bridgewater will perform cuts from the new album Sunday night at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

Elected in 1999 as one of the United Nations' first ambassadors for the Food and Agricultural Organization, Bridgewater had visited several African villages. In that time, she also became interested in genealogy and traced both sides of her family's roots to Mali. She visited the country for the first time in summer 2004.

"The people in general have this serenity to them," Bridgewater says. "You have to see it to understand it. Most of black Africa is oral, and they pass on education and tradition that way."

Before she arrived, though, Bridgewater and her husband, producer Jean-Marie Durand, had made plans to film a documentary of the experience and to record an album with Mali's top musicians. They enlisted the aid of producer-musician Cheick Tidiane Seck. The West African artist is perhaps best known for Sarala, his revered 1995 Malian pop-jazz CD collaboration with pianist Hank Jones. Seck secured the musicians, with whom Bridgewater felt an immediate connection.

"My body and spirit responded to the music," she says. "It was important for the musicians to see the excitement in me. I didn't want them to think I was just going to use them and profit from them."

Red Earth, the resultant album and DVD documentary, was released in August. Over incantational rhythms and sparkling melodies, the singer's silvery vocals soar, glide and shimmy. A zesty take of "Afro Blue," the Mongo Santamaria classic Bridgewater recorded on her 1974 debut, opens the CD. Afterward, Bridgewater interprets traditional African songs: "Bad Spirits (Bani)," "Mama Don't Ever Go Away (Mama Digna Sara Ye)," "Children Go 'Round (Demissenw)."

She takes liberties with the melodies, infusing songs with her slippery scat vocals. The Malian musicians back her with an array of percussive native instruments. The album also features several female African vocalists, including Oumou Sangare, Ramata Diakite and Fatoumata "Mama" Kouyate.

"I adapted the story of the Malian songs," Bridgewater says. "I decided that I would keep my lyrics very basic, because you got so much music and all these other languages coming at you. I could have used big, literate words. But I didn't want to detract from the whole musical picture and the simple messages of Malian music."

Where the African songs communicate sunny sentiments of familial and spiritual upliftment, the American covers are defiant and dark. Bridgewater offers a subtly dramatic reading of Nina Simone's "Four Women." And she peppers Gene McDaniels' "Compared to What" with sassy funk.

"I wasn't thinking about how this record would be received," the artist says. "This was for me a gift from God. I was surprised at how I responded to the music, how comfortable I felt in it. But Mali is my home, in a way. I guess the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree, certainly not musically."

See Dee Dee Bridgewater at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St. N.W. in Washington, on Sunday night at 7. Tickets are $20-$45. Information: Call 800-444-1324 or go to kennedy-center.org.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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