To say that Thursday night’s performance in Baldwin Auditorium was impressive would be an understatement. For the relatively few hardy souls who braved the unusually cold weather to attend the concert, it was a rewarding experience. Duke’s tireless Director of Jazz Studies, bassist John Brown, has assembled an outstanding classic big band that uses solely acoustic instruments and is comprised of his students (who remarkably are not necessarily majoring in music). The Duke Jazz Ensemble opened the evening with three standards from the American Songbook; clearly the group was well rehearsed with the brass and reed sections blending particularly harmoniously.
Dee Dee Bridgewater is an international award-winning actress and recording star. She is the recipient of three Grammy Awards for her jazz vocals, a Tony Award for Best Actress in the musical The Wiz, the Laurence Olivier Award in the UK for Best Actress in a Musical, where she played the part of Billie Holiday in Lady Day, and France’s 1998 top honor Victoire de la Musique for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Her entertaining skills were clearly evident in her opening piece, “A Foggy Day” (by George and Ira Gershwin); she instantly infused the Ensemble with that vital sense of swing that is crucial to jazz, and there was a palpable feeling of uplift in both the performance and the audience. Added to that, Bridgewater chose to employ her own brand of scat singing in the song. It is often said that the late Ella Fitzgerald popularized the art of scat; it seems that Bridgewater has perfected it. Her theatrical talents were put to very effective use in most of her seven tunes, all of which were skillfully arranged by her former husband, trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater. Her singing was an object lesson in superb elocution plus the use of dynamic and expressive vocal “sounds” to emulate an external instrument with the internal instrument of her voice. It was jazz in its most basic form, i.e., the combination of melody, harmony, rhythm, and improvisation to communicate musically. Bridgewater succeeded magnificently in all these elements.
It was laudable that Brown frequently interchanged members of the ensemble’s rhythm section during the performance in order to give as many of his students as possible the opportunity to experience playing with a world-class performer. Of particular note was a novel arrangement in 6/8 time (normally played in 4/4 meter) of the Gershwin classic “Oh, Lady be Good”; appropriately, female drummer Kathleen Marsh took over from the excellent main drummer Chris Cook, and Director Brown was “persuaded” by Bridgewater to “sit in” and show his talents on the bass – and he did just that. In the true spirit of jazz, several members of the horn section played solos; particularly thoughtful and innovative in this regard were tenor saxophonist Spencer Dahl and trumpeter Noah Burrell on the George and Ira Gershwin tune “A Foggy Day.”
The Duke Ellington standard “Cottontail,” arranged by the great trombonist Slide Hampton, was Bridgewater’s closer for the performance, and since it was almost totally scatted, it was dedicated to the memory of Ella Fitzgerald. Fitting indeed!
Even as there was no encore as such, it was notable that Bridgewater did not act as a Diva, which of course she is (in the best sense of the word!), and devoted a considerable amount of time sitting on the edge of the stage after the performance chatting with and signing autographs for enthusiastic audience members despite her ongoing arduous schedule of tour dates in the US and abroad.