A Class Act: Dee Dee Bridgewater with Ramsey Lewis and his Quintet

Nélida Nassar  07.21.2013

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) made her appearance on stage, in the large courtyard of the sublime Beiteddine Palace in Lebanon’s Chouf Mountains. Bridgewater and Lewis have both won the Grammy Award three times, and their constantly versatile and evolving careers have spanned over several decades. They have both secured their permanent place in the pantheon of jazz, she as a vocalist and he as a pianist. The audience was eagerly anticipating the performance of Bridgewater, the inexhaustible, ever-commanding artist in every medium, and that of the polished and melodically driven Lewis. Such expectations were indeed rewarded by the two exceptional stars, among the most ubiquitous and respected figures in contemporary music.

Bridgewater combined exploring and swinging some of her favorite tunes with a healthy amount of chat with the audience introducing each song in French, the language of her adopted country. Throughout the evening, she mixed things up in a way that kept her public constantly wondering which 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 Lewis and his quintet the possibility to present their brilliant selection and contribution of pure unsung jazz beat and rhythm. This way the jazz aficionados could get their “fix,” but she also allowed for the limelight to return quickly back to her artistry and command, reappearing on stage to join Lewis in his classical, wildly complex and Latin influenced piece Brazilica. She then moved on to her interpretation of Nancy Wilson’s romantic and expressive Save your Love.

Lewis’s talent was limitless and thanks to his generous spirit he did not feel 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. The audience was thus able to discover that Joshua Ramos is a prodigiously talented master of extended techniques performing on his electrical bass. His chameleonic dexterity bolstered the performance with impetuous flair. He seamlessly integrated intervallic multi-phonics into shifting musical changes. He crafted nervy staccato variations and elliptical rhythms while exercising lyrical restraint. Charles Heath’s drumming and Ramos’ bass offbeat thunks, perfectly in synch with Lewis, neatly demonstrated how one harmony could be re-colored in endless ways, from blues to pop/rock, manifesting all such elements in the same song, yet providing a subtle backdrop to engaging percussionist Charles VI’s exploding musical beats.

Ramos and Heath navigated respectively the drum’s and the bass’ exigent but accessible structures with spirited aplomb, underscoring Lewis’ filigrees which interwove lines with an intuitive ebb and flow, a balance of strength and sophistication. Henry Johnson’s fingers flew over the strings of his guitar, creating a smooth tone and the style and the joy he derived from his music was contagious and energizing. The quintet reflected the independent spirit of its pioneering artist Lewis whose intrepid enthusiasm manifests itself also in his choice of these gifted young collaborators. The group displayed boundless creativity, deriving equal inspiration from both past and future tunes.

Following the quintet’s solo performance, Lewis ceded his piano to Mr. Edsel Gomez, who was born and raised in Puerto Ricco, and currently resides in New York. Bridgewater and the band continued the show with Stevie Wonders and Michael Jackson’s harmonious and melismatic melody of I Can’t Help It, the soft jazz track Michael Frank’s Night Movie, and Harry Connick Junior’s One Fine Thing, giving way with a smooth transition to Billie Holiday’s God Bless the Child, which opened up with a flawless performance of phrasing manipulation and tempo. Ms. Bridgewater is a born crowd-pleaser, and in One Fine Thing it became fully apparent how theatrical and sassy she is. She sang distinctive and unique polyrhythmic interpretations that were all adeptly arranged by pianist and musical director, Edsel Gomez.

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 one or two entire lines of a lyric into a rapid-fire, evenly accented staccato and tessitura. Her ability to understand the human experience with a disturbing finesse 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, and by listening to two timeless giants. The over-riding memory of the evening was the sheer exuberance of the music. The joyfulness did not only shine through the tracks with great old stagers such as Ms. Bridgewater and Mr. Lewis but also with Mr. Gomez and the quintet.

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