Sunday 7 June, Hamer Hall
It turns out that Cecil Taylor was absolutely spot-on when he proclaimed that music should be fun. Dee Dee Bridgewater and Irvin Mayfield’s performance with the electrifying New Orleans Jazz Orchestra completely and without doubt reaffirmed this for me.
Last time Dee Dee Bridgewater sang at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, her joyful stage presence delighted a large audience at the Melbourne Town Hall. I was looking forward to see her return, this time with a much larger band.
Irvin Mayfield, New Orleans born and bred, is the founding artistic director of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, which, in its own words, creates jazz to enhance life, transform place, and elevate spirit. Indeed I could feel a strong positive energy that radiated from the stage and made for an engaging performance. Mayfield and Bridgewater kept the audience laughing and smiling all night.
Although at times I thought that Mayfield’s trumpet could have been a little louder, the sound of the ensemble was generally balanced, with a warm blend from the saxophones, a thunderous brass section, and a tight rhythm section.
A highlight of the performance was One Fine Thing, which began with a lively interaction between Mayfield and Bridgewater during the melody. It was clear that Bridgewater was not only comfortable with the ensemble; she was part of the ensemble, blending seamlessly with the horns. Bridgewater embarked on a virtuosic scat solo, which explored the limits of her vocal range and timbre.
Bridgewater wasn’t the only singer on stage; James Williams put down his tuba for long enough to entertain the audience with a gravelly, throaty rendition of You’ve Got a Friend in Me that reminiscent of Louis Armstrong while still sounding authentic. Also notable was a soaring solo from the alto saxophonist, which showcased his extensive command of the altissimo register and his pleasing, bright tone.
I must confess that I was slightly worried that Bridgewater’s stage presence and vocal virtuosity would eclipse her rendition of What a Wonderful World, but as soon as she started singing it was clear that the priority was storytelling. The audience was captivated from the first note. The beautifully blended horn section and sensitive contributions from the rhythm section gave way to a tasteful solo from Mayfield.
With period music projects there’s always a risk that things are going to sound gimmicky. However, Mayfield and Bridgewater gave us the real thing. It was obvious that the NOJO musicians knew intimately the musical traditions of New Orleans. This, combined with the character Bridgewater brought, provided a sincerity that came through with each number.
Gianni Vecchio is an up and coming Melbourne based saxophone player.