Back in what we now call "the golden age of jazz," from the 1930s to the 1960s, you never went to a jazz club, like Birdland, the Village Vanguard or the Village Gate, just to see one band: usually there were at least two acts on the bill. (ie, the famous combination of the Miles Davis Quintet and the Shirley Horn Trio at the Vanguard.) Now that Birdland has a downstairs – the lovely Birdland Theater opened a year ago, the equivalent of the double feature is back – especially since major domo and host Gianni Valenti often invites patrons to stay for the next show at no additional cover charge. It makes for a really satisfying evening of music, and the combination of Dee Dee Bridgewater, the Michigan born musical polymath, and Nicki Parrott, the Australian-born bassist who now doubles as a superlative singer, is a particularly welcome one.
You might think it was with some degree of archness that in the very same year (2017) that Ms. Bridgewater was named as an NEA Jazz Master – and very deservedly so – she released what some might perceive as her least jazzy album yet, Memphis…Yes, I'm Ready (Okeh Records, the current jazz division of Sony). This is a set of hardcore soul songs from the 1960s, centered around artists, bands, songwriters and musicians from Memphis, such as "I Can't Get Next to You," associated with Al Green (as well as the Temptations), "Goin' Down Slow," "B.A.B.Y." and two early Elvis Presley classics, "Hound Dog" and "Don't Be Cruel." Yet though the material comes from the soul songbook, the very notion of interpretations (as opposed to "covers") is still a fundamental precept of jazz, and so is the way Ms. Bridgewater interacts with the audience and creates something new in the moment. There's a Gospel influence in there, no doubt, but these are all part of what jazz is – not any other kind of music. Even in her soul music project, Ms. Bridgewater is still fundamentally a jazz artist.
Ms. Bridgewater has an ambitious band, with four rhythm, two horns, and two back-up singers (whose ranks she joins for some choreography that's both erotic and genuinely hysterical). Contrastingly, Ms. Parrott works with just a trio, but this is the perfect forum for her, with the heroically musical and entertaining drumming of Alvin Atkinson and the inspired harmonies of pianist John DiMartino. Her singing has evolved to the point where she could be described as something like an Australian Blossom Dearie, and as a bandleader she knows well how to partition the melodic responsibility between her bass and her voice, not to mention Mr. DiMartino and Mr. Atkinson. I liked her Trio so much that I stayed for both shows on Thursday night, which were largely different; however, she did play her reinterpretation of the Brill Building classic "On Broadway" (which she associates with George Benson rather than the Drifters) on both sets, and I was glad to hear it both times. No lyrics were necessary here, Ms. Parrott did her singing with her bass, and Mr. DiMartino played his piano part mostly en clave, as if to remind us that Broadway hardly stops at Times Square, but rather it goes way up above Spanish Harlem clear to the Heights.
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