Nélida Nassar 07.20.2013
It was almost 9.30 pm last night when Dee Dee Bridgewater accompanied by Ramsey Lewis and his quintet, including Tim Gant (keyboards), Charles Heath (drums), Henry Johnson (guitar), Joshua Ramos (electric bass) and Charles IV (percussion) walked on the stage of the sublime Beiteddine Palace large courtyard. Mrs. Bridgewater and Mr. Lewis are each three-time Grammy Award-winning artists whose constantly versatile and evolving careers have spanned over several decades. They both have secured their permanent place in the jazz’s pantheon, she as a vocalist and he as a pianist. The audience was eagerly anticipating the inexhaustible, ever-commanding artist in every medium, Dee Dee Bridgewater and the polished and melodically driven Ramsey Lewis, it was indeed rewarded by the most ubiquitous and respected figures in contemporary music, two exceptional stars.
Bridgewater exploring and swinging some of her favorite tubes combined a healthy amount of chat with her audience presenting each song in French, the language of her adopted country. Throughout the evening, she mixed things up in a way that kept her audience not knowing what wonderful musical surprise would come next. Bridgewater started the performance with Bruce Cockburn’s The way she smiles by managing to strike the perfect balance between drawing the focus in on her singing then leaving the stage to give Mr. Ramsey and his quintet the room to present their brilliant selection and contribution of pure unsung jazz beat and rhythm. So the jazz aficionados could get their “fix,” but she also allowed for the limelight to return quickly back to her artistry and command, coming back on stage to join Ramsey in his classical, wildly complex and Latin influenced piece Brazilica. She followed it by Nancy Wilson’s romantic and expressive Save your Love.
Ramsey’s talent was limitless, with his generous spirit he was not threatened by sharing the spotlight with each and every member of his amazing group. He clearly delighted in giving them frequent and extended opportunities to showcase their individual abilities. Joshua Ramos is a prodigiously talented master of extended techniques performing on his electrical bass. His chameleonic dexterity bolstered the proceedings with impetuous flair. He seamlessly integrated intervallic multi-phonics into shifting musical changes. He crafted nervy staccato variations and elliptical rhythms while showing lyrical restraint. Charles Heath drumming and Ramos bass offbeat thunks, perfectly timed with Mr. Ramsey’s that neatly showed how one harmony could be re-colored in endless ways rhythm, blues and pop/rock material, manifesting all elements in the same song, without shifting its ground, providing a subtle backdrop to engaging percussionist Charles VI’s exploding musical beats.
Ramos and Heath navigated respectively the drum’s and bass’ exigent but accessible structures with spirited aplomb, underscoring Ramsey’s cascading filigrees interweaving lines with an intuitive ebb and flow that balances strength with sophistication. Henry Johnson’s fingers flew over the strings of his guitar, creating smooth tone and style while his joy over his musical experience was contagious and energizing. The quintet reflected the independent spirit of its pioneering artist Ramsey whose intrepid enthusiasm manifests itself in his choice of these gifted young collaborators. They displayed boundless creativity that derived equal inspiration from both past and future tunes.
Following Mr. Lewis and his quintet solo performance, Ramsey ceded his piano to Mr. Edsel Gomez, while Ms. Bridgewater and the band continued with Stevie Wonders and Michael Jackson’s harmonious and melismatic melody of I Can’t Help It, the soft jazz Michael Frank’s Night Movie, and Harry Connick Junior’s One Fine Thing that ended up with smooth transition to Billie Holiday’s God Bless the Child, which opened up with a flawless performance of phrasing manipulation and tempo. Ms. Bridgewater, conversely, is a born crowd-pleaser, and just how theatrical and sassy she became was fully apparent in One Fine Thing. She sang distinctive and unique polyrhythmic interpretations that were all adeptly arranged by pianist and musical director, Edsel Gomez, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and currently resides in New York.
Ms. Bridgewater is a remarkable, world-class purveyor of this classic jazz material. She gets this aspect of performance absolutely right every time. One of her trademarks is fragmenting an entire line or two of a lyric into a rapid-fire, evenly accented staccato and tessitura. Her ability to understand with a disturbing finesse, the human experience and rendering it through this voice that she can manipulate any way she wants is unique. Audiences around the world often attend performances by one exceptional artist. At the Beiteddine Art Festival, the spectators were doubly rewarded by an uplifting concert, loose, energetic, tender and edgy as well as by listening to two timeless giants. The evening over-riding memory was of the sheer exuberance of the music, and that joyfulness shines through not only in the tracks with great old stagers such as Ms. Bridgewater and Mr. Davis but with Mr. Gomez and the quintet, too.