The last concert at the 2012 Monterey Jazz Festival featuring, as usual in the granddaddy of all jazz festivals, an astounding band.
The great jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater , who first appeared at Monterey 40 years ago, lead a group that featured bassist Christian McBride, pianist Benny Green, drummer Lewis Nash, saxophonist Chris Potter and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, some of the very finest jazz musicians playing today.
And though it was the closing show of the Festival, it turns out that band was just getting warmed up.
Next Thursday, that same cast of players will come to the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz in what will be a national tour of more than 40 dates in what is called “Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour.”
The tour is the third such endeavor for the Monterey Jazz Festival, which launched its first touring show back in 2008 on the heels of its 50th anniversary, featuring a band including jazz great Terence Blanchard and James Moody. A second tour featuring the singer Kurt Elling and jazz violinist Regina Carter followed two years later. And now the 2013 version.
The group has been together for a year and a half, said MJF general manager Tim Jackson who tabbed McBride, one of the jazz world’s most celebrated bassists, to be the bandleader. Together the two of them brought together the players to make a functioning band.
“This is a group in which pretty much all the players had known each other,” said Jackson, who is also the executive director of the Kuumbwa. “Plus, all have a history with the Festival. And what’s particularly exciting is the fact that the band represents three generations of great jazz artists.”
At the top of that generational pyramid is Bridgewater who, at 62, is widely recognized as one of the greatest female jazz vocalists working today, in the tradition of Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald.
“I think along with Dianne Reeves,” said Jackson, “Dee Dee is considered by many in the jazz world as one of those benchmark singers. She’s one of the two greatest singers of this generation.”
Bridgewater is known not only for her amazing vocal prowess but for her dynamism and energy on stage. At last year’s MJF, with her shaved-bald head and the kind of flashy fake eyelashes that Diana Ross would envy, she expertly carried the vocal weight in the band.
“This is an amazing, amazing band,” said Bridgewater in a New Year’s Eve phone interview. “I mean, holy smokes. I’m telling you, I haven’t heard so much music from one group of people. I felt reinvigorated. I felt intimidated. I felt exhilaration on the stage when we were making this music together. At the end of this tour, I’m going to be a whole new musical level.”
Bridgewater’s history with MJF goes back to 1973 when first she appeared as a talented young singer. The main thing she remembers about that festival, she said, was meeting a man who would become an inspiration and an idol throughout her career.
“I met Ray Brown there and that’s all I remember,” she laughed. “And Ray Brown said to me, ‘One day I’m going to work with you, little girl, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, Ray Brown just said he’s going to work with me.’ And we did. We worked together from 1995 until he died (in 2002).”
In fact, the legendary bassist is an invisible presence in this new MJF touring band. Bridgewater said that her experience with both McBride and Green stems from an annual tribute show to Brown that takes place in New York.
Bridgewater is a towering figure not only in jazz but in theater as well, developing a dual career in the 1970s, singing with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis orchestra and performing in the Broadway musical “The Wiz.” She has performed as Billie Holiday on stage and, in 2010, released her own tribute album to Holiday titled “Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie with Love from Dee Dee,” in reference to Holiday’s birth name.
Her latest recording is a compilation called “Midnight Sun,” a collection from her Verve recordings of ballads and love songs. Though she loves the ballads, she said, fans shouldn’t expect too much slow stuff during the MJF tour.
“I love doing love songs,” she said, “and (‘Midnight Sun’) allows you to hear a softer side of my voice. But I had a few bookings this past summer where promoters in Europe wanted me to do just the ‘Midnight Sun’ repertoire, but I actually went on stage and said ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I know I was booked to do this, but I can’t just do ballads or I’ll go crazy.’”
Her most ambitious project was 2007’s “Red Earth” in which she traveled to the African nation of Mali to find the roots of American music in the African tradition of the griot, the musicians and storytellers that carried on African oral tradition..
“It was born out of me trying to find my African ancestry,” she said of the “Red Earth” project. “I didn’t go to Mali to do an album. I went to Mali to look for my African ancestry.”
While in Mali, she met a local musician who helped her understand the underpinnings of jazz, blues and other forms of music pioneered by African-Americans.
“He told me that jazz and blues are just branches on the African tree of music, and you can just hear it in the songs. When you hear the griot songs, the way they do it, is to sing the griot melody and then they improvise and they talk about the different griots living today and the things they do. When they hear me go into a scat and then go back into a melody, they were like ‘Dee Dee, that’s exactly what we’re doing.’”
During the U.S. tour of the “Red Earth” material, she said she approached by many African-Americans once embarrassed by their African heritage but suddenly curious about it.
“The cultural divide between African culture and African-American culture is just huge,” she said. “But you could hear the evolution of the jazz in the griot music. In fact, the Malians call me a modern-day griot, because the role of the griot is to call the history forward, in an oral manner. And I’ve tried to keep this tradition of the vocal jazz alive and that has really been something that has been very important to me. You have to keep history alive and know where you come from.”
JAN. 10 7 p.m. Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. $30 advance; $33 at the door. Details: www.kuumbwajazz.org.