Dee Dee Bridgewater Records and Reflects on Her Malian Experience in The Landfill Chronicles
DEE DEE BRIDGEWATER RECORDS RED EARTH IN MALI
THE LANDFILL CHRONICLES — CONVERSATIONS ON MUSIC ELEVATED TO A STATE OF ART
Chapter 4, Part 4 in the Medium book The Landfill Chronicles, the conversation memoirs by Dan Ouellette
RED EARTH IS BORN
The bulk of Red Earth, with its mix of traditional jazz and traditional Malian music — all played with Malian instruments and including guest vocalists — is recorded in October 2006 at Bogolan. After her longtime U.S. sound engineer James Hate died suddenly in early October, Dee Dee was so distraught that she nearly delayed her return to Bamako. “I almost quit the project,” she says. “I didn’t know how I’d be able to get through it. But my husband Jean-Marie convinced me to return. Just being there re-inspired me. I wrote two songs in the first day and eventually eight more.”
In one of the CD highlights, Dee Dee updates Oumou’s gently lilting “Djarabi” (which means “my love” in Bambara) with a new soulful arrangement and English lyrics and titled “Oh My Love.” It’s sung as a duet with Oumou.
Another beaming number is Dee Dee’s skipping version of Ramata Diakité’s “Mama Digna Sara Yé (Mama Don’t Ever Go Away),” sung in a vocal exchange with the composer.
Because they couldn’t find one playable piano in all of Bamako, Dee Dee’s pianist Edsel Gomez recorded all the piano parts in Paris during a week of recording there to finish up the project. Edsel also arranged the Malian-steeped take on the Mango Santamaría/John Coltrane classic “Afro Blue” as well as the haunting tune “Meanwhile” that he and Dee Dee composed. The other key members of her band, bassist Ira Coleman and drummer Minino Garay, arranged the superb Africanized version of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” with words written by Dee Dee and retitled “Long Time Ago.”
Who knows, maybe Dee Dee will complete her heritage circle back to the homeland. At the height of the Mali glow, she tells me being in the country is the first time she feels like she belonged somewhere. “I fit in,” she says. ”I started to have a yearning to live there, to be with beautiful people who live with a beautiful simplicity and honesty. I’ve had so many accolades, I’ve realized all my dreams, and I’ve lived the comfortable life. Being with and helping the people of one of the poorest countries in black Africa…” she pauses, then says, “What a beautiful way to go.”
The finished album so thrilled Dee Dee that she took the project on the road. I caught up with her in 2007 at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam. She enlists her steady jazz quartet that was augmented by a full ensemble of France-based Malian musicians on talking drum, kora, ngoni, balafon and a variety of percussion instruments. Infectious rhythms, dazzling colors, new textures, and Dee Dee passionately soaring win over the audience. Not your standard jazz offering, the date opens with Dee Dee’s band turning “Afro Blue” into a full-blown rhythm blast and includes the accentuate-the-positive “Bad Spirits (Bani),” based on a 12th-century griot tune from Mali. It teems with a speedy scat. The most dramatic moment come with Dee Dee’s poignant rendition of Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” spiced with percussive swells.
Her triumphant Red Earth tour marks a turning point in Dee Dee’s trajectory as a jazz visionary. Known throughout her career for shaking up her repertoire, putting new spins on music ranging from Horace Silver to Kurt Weill, Dee Dee seems to have truly found home.
Dee Dee explores the muse at North Sea. Watching her dance festively into the Malian polyrhythms, taking on the mantle of a modern-day storyteller, singing with such exhilaration, she appears to have found a true freedom on her Malian journey. Later in the year she lights such venues as the San Francisco Jazz Festival and Kennedy Center.
SIXTEEN YEARS LATER
On May 25 at Dizzy’s n New York, the 2023 American Pianists Awards introduces its five young finalists vying for the prestigious prize next April. Dee Dee serves as the host for the show, introducing the promising five soloists supporting them in her front row seat.
Sixteen years and an NEA Jazz Master award later, on the eve of the APA event, Dee Dee reflects on that Malian time in her life. It turns out that she didn’t move there. With two military coups in the country, its stability has been compromised. “Poor Mali,” she says. “I did entertain that idea for a few years until the first military coup. The country now has so many problems. It’s unfortunate. So, I have reevaluated that idea. I’m back in the U.S., for a time in Harlem and now in New Orleans. I’m in a country where I know the culture of the beast. I can navigate this situation.”
And today even that is an uncertainty as we talk about the recent atrocities in the U.S. Dee Dee is keyed in on how the situation is bleak with the recent mass murders in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas. Even she experiences up-close the sting of racism when she’s on the road. Recently she received an honorary doctorate from Elmhurst University in Illinois. “I decided to take my dog for a walk outside around my hotel,” she says. “I dress well and I do have a boutique dog, but people were slowing their cars to look at me. That’s making me nervous. And my grandsons who attend a private school in Los Angeles get emails from classmates that threaten them for their race. This is very real. You can’t feel how real this is if you’re not black.”
Dee Dee says that Red Earth was extremely meaningful, not only in the studio sessions but also touring around the world with Malian musicians to give the recording full life. That whole experience inspired her to check into her family tree. “I did my African Ancestry DNA search,” she says. “On my mother’s side, she was 100 percent Fulani, which was a nomadic tribe from Nigeria. They moved to Mali and became known as Peul. So, I was right. I was following my spirit.”
Mali remains fresh on her mind. In Paris not too long ago, Dee Dee ran into Baba Sissoko who was one of her percussionists on her album. A master of the tamani talking drums, he played the ngoni on Red Earth. “I just saw into him as I was leaving my hotel,” she says. “We started talking about doing something together. He’s been sending me music and ideas. So, we may do it. That trip to Mali was such a spiritual experience and very special. I feel a need to go back to that musically.”
END OF PART 4 OF CHAPTER 4
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In the next chapter of The Landfill Chronicles, I visit with Astor Piazzolla.