Dee Bridgewater – Barbican, London (Live Review)

My expectations are high as the two musical traditions I love most are to be played here tonight by jazz chanteuse Dee Dee Bridgewater and the collection of Malian stars she has assembled

The truth is that these fusions have quite a history but the time is right for another twist. Dee Dee comes on stage in a swirl of gold and leopard skin, long earrings dangling from her totally bald head. She’s full of fire and banter before launching into the classic ‘Afro Blue’ played on talking drum, balofon, kora, piano, bass, kit drums and bongos.
‘Bad Spirits’ sees Dee Dee invite a Guinean griot on stage for her adaptation of an 11th century traditional Mande song. A long and quite wonderful balofon solo takes us into the duet contrasting Dee Dee’s swooping scatted vocals with the declarative and soaring griot approach to vocals.
Dee Dee’s spirit of fun and humour takes all the heaviness out of all the learning. She gently plays with her second singer, the hugely talented Mamani Keita, herself no stranger to fusions. The song, written by Yacouba Sissiko is introduced by him on this year’s hot African instrument: the ngoni. Mamani Keita has the penetrating tone of a Malian singer but with just the slightest polishing of edges making her a pleasure to listen to.
By the time she plays Wayne Shorter’s ‘Footprints’ it’s clear that we are in for an orgy of rhythm. Percussion and voice are everything although of course kora, piano and balofon double up on melodic duties. This softer number allows more space for the bass of core band member Ira Coleman and he grabs the opportunity for a poised and powerful solo.
Bassekou Kouyati was not here but the song he wrote for Dee Dee’s album features his finger pluckingly funky ngoni sound and Yacouba does it justice as the tempo goes up a few notches. Anywhere else but the Barbican and the floor would have been rocking.
Dee Dee takes time out to thank the musical guide for her journey Cheikh Teidiane Seck. This was not his first adventure of this kind with visiting American musicians though and if you can find his album from a few years back with Hank Jones, buy it.
A deeply enjoyable gutsy blues crosses over and floats across a griot song like a radio dial caught between stations but miraculously staying in synch. This is the red earth of Mali and Memphis Tennessee.
Dee Dee comes back for a mischievous encore featuring the anti-war song ‘Compared to What’ (the President has got his war, folks don’t know just what it’s for). Finally she has the audience on their feet.

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