Wild Is The Wind (Blujazz)
January 27, 2009
DownBeat Five-Star Review
Over the years, the word “diva” has gotten a
pretty bad rap.
It originally comes from the Latin divus, meaning “divine”; that’s why, in the world of Italian opera, it became the standard term for female singers of extraordinary ability. But over time, some of those artists gained more renown for the demanding personality – dare we say unreasonable arrogance? – that afflicts many of the brilliant in every walk of life. Eventually, “diva” grew to describe people who exhibit such behavior even without the benefit of talent; in the process, the word shrank to mean something petty and peevish and rarely a compliment, its initial veneration all but forgotten.
On this long-awaited album, Dee Alexander does her part to reclaim the word from the sad disrepair into which it has fallen.
Dee Alexander is a jazz diva in the grandest, oldest sense; the fact that she displays not an ounce of bad behavior makes her artistic triumphs all the sweeter. (For the record, she works hard and without complaint, which has earned her respect and admiration throughout the music community in her home town Chicago.) She swings effortlessly, with a rhythmic sense so sure that she can take extensive detours around the beat without losing her way. She applies that same authoritative ease to intonation, with bullseyes to the very center of any note she chooses. She has a strong, rangy instrument – husky but not breathless, sweet but not sugary – and she adorns it with ruffles, flourishes, and any other damned thing she chooses, confident that she will make it all work. She doesn’t have to whisper to sing soft, and she needn’t shout to command the room. She sings with flamboyance but she does not preen, and if you don’t find that noteworthy, try to name three others who can manage the trick.
Her skill as an improviser looms large, especially when she mimics a horn. Alexander does a drop-dead imitation of trumpet and trombone, down to those instruments’ idiosyncratic growls and smears; on this album she adds violin to her repertoire, and can also do a credible impression of a didgeridoo (but that’s another story.) At such moments – when she drops even the pretense of verbal language offered by scat syllables – she enters a realm of pure musical thought that most singers only envision. Her predecessors include Ella Fitzgerald, sure. But much more to the point, in the way she struts through a song or soaks it in emotion, Dee Alexander wears the mantle of Dee Dee Bridgewater, who accepted it from the likes of Dinah Washington, who shared it with Sarah Vaughan – whose nickname, after all, was “The Divine.”
With all that going for her, Dee Alexander had only to show up for this, the recording that will establish her presence on the international scene (despite appearances on albums by Chicago trumpeters Orbert Davis and Malachi Thompson). Instead, she’s gone ahead and made one of the most exciting and creatively charged albums in years: a program that’s eclectic, inclusive, and wildly innovative, while at the same time tracing her own musical history.
A key figure in that story was the little-known but much-missed Chicago saxophonist Henry Huff, whose adopted nickname, “Light,” expressed a purity of purpose and serenity of soul that stood out in Chicago’s jazz avant-garde of the 1970s. Huff was an early member of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Music) and the original saxophonist in Kahil El’Zabar’s long-running Ethnic Heritage Ensemble; he died in 1993, at the age of 42. Toward the end of his life, he added Alexander to his band, Breath, a spiritually inspired group called Breath that featured Alexander, and the experience left what she calls an “integral influence” on her career.
“It was a turning point when I started working with him,” says Alexander. “He made me think outside the box, to not be afraid to take chances – to try anything. That’s why I feel so comfortable in a lot of different genres: big band, strings, singing the music of the great vocalists, or with the AACM,” as she does with such bands as the Great Black Music Ensemble and Edward Wilkerson’s 8 Bold Souls. “Light told me to get a Charlie Parker record and try scatting like that, but I knew I couldn’t, so I tried doing different things, emulating different sounds – birds, car engines, even other people’s voices. When I listen now to some of the stuff I did with Light, I think I must have been out of my mind. If I’d thought about half that stuff at the time, I wouldn’t have done it!” Today, she keeps Huff’s music alive through a group called the Evolution Ensemble, and on this disc she devotes three tracks to his memory – two of Huff’s uplifting compositions and one of Alexander’s own works, the jaunty and autobiographical “C U On The Other Side.”
By the time she met Huff, Alexander had already “cut her eyeteeth” on the singers her mother loved, Nina Simone and Dinah Washington. These singers inspired a widely praised concert entitled “Sirens Of Song,” which Alexander presented in 2007 at Chicago’s lakefront showcase Millennium Park; she represents them here with authoritative renditions of tunes made famous by each. Dinah Washington originally recorded “This Bitter Earth” in 1959, wringing it dry of pathos and drama; Alexander’s version channels that depth of emotion but reflects latter-day sensibilities, and borrowing from the 1960s rhythm-and-blues singers (who themselves followed Washington’s example). She does similar justice by the three songs so strongly associated with Nina Simone – “Feeling Good,” “Four Women,” and especially this album’s title track, which Alexander treats with admirable patience and command.
Alexander references another important musical association with “Surrender Your Love” by the departed Chicago trumpeter Malachi Thompson: her work on three of his discs for the Delmark label remain her most widely known recordings till now, including Rising Daystar, on which she first sang this song. It’s a sprightly, infectious performance, highlighted by the note that Alexander grabs near midway through the track (3:42) and holds onto for the better part of 15 seconds (a musical eternity). For some singers, this would turn into a mere party trick, but Alexander’s artistry doesn’t allow for such a misstep. Instead, this note becomes the culmination of her performance, capping what has preceded it and then reprised by shorter echoes, an octave higher, to end the track: flamboyance but with a purpose, in the grand tradition of the jazz masters from Louis Armstrong through Joe Zawinul.
That leaves us with three more songs written by Alexander. The lyrics of “Long Road Ahead” (music by Harrison Bankhead, this album’s gifted and versatile bassist) might serve as the vocalist’s own credo after 20 years of shaping her music – that each travels to her own pace, getting to one’s individual goal when it makes sense to arrive there. Alexander wrote “Rossignol” to depict a songbird found in French-speaking northern Africa, the rossignol philomèle – which we know as the nightingale. Alexander learned the word from an African friend who heard her one night and remarked, “Dee, you sing like a rossignol – a beautiful bird that flies and sings at night.” (She has since adopted the rossignol as a personal symbol, giving the name to her production company.)
“But the song that’s really about me,” she explains, “is ‘Butterfly.’ I’ve been working at this so long, taking this long road to see which path I should follow, searching for which flower I needed to find the power I needed to stay in flight. I’m still looking; it doesn’t end till there’s no more breath in my lungs, of course.” That’s the message of the lyric; joined to a flighty and glittering melody, it will draw you back again and again. Like all the tracks here, “Butterfly” leans heavily on the unimpeachable musicality of the trio Alexander has assembled, and with whom she works regularly in performance.
The boxer Muhammad Ali once famously advised to “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” but Alexander turns that axiom completely around. She zeroes in on her target with precision and power, locating the musical nectar with unerring instincts; and once she arrives, she throttles back to land with lithe, lepidopteral grace, resplendent even against all the colors of her music, and looking for all the world like she never belonged anywhere else.
Queen Bee or Monarch Butterfly: no matter how you slice it, you are in the presence of jazz royalty. Be sure to curtsy on your way out.
1. Live (Henry Huff) 3:16
2. Surrender Your Love (Malachi Thompson) 5:18
3. This Bitter Earth (Clyde Lovern Otis) 6:15
4. You and I (Henry Huff) 6:52
5. C U on the Other Side (Ode to “Light” Henry Huff) (Dee Alexander) 4:32
6. Wild Is the Wind (Dimitri Tiomkin / Ned Washington) 6:29
7. Rossignol (Dee Alexander) 7:09
8. Long Road Ahead (Dee Alexander / Harrison Bankhead) 5:30
9. Butterfly (Dee Alexander) 3:50
10. Feeling Good (Leslie Bricusse / Anthony Newley) 8:41
11. Four Women (Nina Simone) 7:05
Dee Alexander: vocals
Miguel de la Cerna: piano (1, 2, 7–9, 11)
Mike Logan: piano (3–6)
James Sanders: violin (7, 8)
Harrison Bankhead: bass
Leon Joyce, Jr.: drums, percussion
Recorded at Steve Yates Studio, Morton Grove, IL
Producer: Diane Delin
Executive Producer: Greg Pasenko
Dee Alexander is a chameleon. She mimics her surroundings and influences, which include Nina Simone, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan, but less obviously Susaye Greene and Curtis Mayfield. However, the most profound influence on her development was AACM saxophonist “Light” Henry Huff, who died young but taught her the value of tanking risks.
This Kamikaze experimentalism has perhaps slowed Alexander’s development into full-blown diva, but she’s there now, without a whit of compromise. The carpe diem of Huff’s “Live” swings with demonstrative jazziness and some conventional scat (Alexander has her own arsenal of abstract vocalization to add later). “CU On The Other Side” is overly autobiographical, with uncut statements of respect for departed ones and naked manifestos an AACM hallmark. When Alexander returns after Miguel de la Cerna’s insistent solo on “Surrender Your Love,” it sounds like an entirely different singer as she stops you in your tracks by opening in a new range, then flexes her tensile tonsils on the long notes. On the Washington vehicle “This Bitter Earth,” flashes of Nancy Wilson’s sanse of stage melodrama emerge, complemented by Mike Logan’s pithy set-ups. It’s nice to hear Leon Joyce flip to hand drums on “You And I,” on which Alexander’s voice heads skyward, ultimately pleading “speak to God on my behalf.”
“Feelling Good” begins with an ominous bass solo from Harrison Bankhead, who arranged the track. It’s an example why this disc is so successful, as everyone is invested in making the arrangements tell the story. James Sander’s violin on “Rossignol” is another stunning incidence of this. The slow-build title track vies with “Feeling Good” and “Four Women” for the bravest Simone covers I’ve ever heard. Simone’s legacy is not to be tampered with lightly, and the note with which Alexander ends the record should haunt for the rest of your day.
Michael Jackson (DownBeat)