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LaBelle & Bridgewater — Two Voices, Innovators In Vocal Jazz | Konstantin N. Rega

by Konstantin N. Rega

Pennsylvanian singer Patti LaBelle (known for her 1974 hit “Lady Marmalade”) and Tennessean singer and actress Dee Dee Bridgewater, have come out with innovative and dynamic new albums, adding a very new sound to the vocal Jazz/R&B scene.

Patti LaBelle’s Bel Hommage (released May 2017) differs entirely from her previous albums in that she brings in jazz influences to her recognized Soul/Gospel or R&B vocals. And it is the fact that she stays true to her original vocal style that is truly impressive about this latest release. Now it is nothing special to have this sort of mix of R&B-Jazz, Aretha Franklin does this in some of her singles, yet it is in the way that she allows traditional jazz sounds to dominate the background instrumentals that makes Bel Hommage special.

My favorite track on LaBelle’s album is an original composition, “I Can Cook”. Its
upbeat accompaniment and stellar vocals make it the standout song. With sass and big lungs, Patti blows the audience away in a composition about a woman who can do it all. Using hot saxophone and trumpets, this song will get you up and moving to the amusing, creative lyrics about hitting high-C’s (though she actually only hits a high-B!).

Patti LaBelle’s usual repertoire can sometimes have a pseudo-Disco and Soul sound (something akin to Donna Summers) or an airy, light-pop tone that floats away, and then again, she can produce a wonderfully pure R&B or Gospel piece like “The Spirit’s in It”. In Bel Hommage, she transforms her music and her style into, as A.D. Amorosi in Variety says, something “nuanced and intimate” and “haunting”; the first track, “The Jazz in You” is such a piece. It soars to the point of breaking, but remains intact, coming down lighter than a feather. This is what vocal Jazz has now achieved: a magnificent descent into its roots and subsequent ascent to new sprouting branches, while still retaining the individuality of its performer, mixing and reworking traditional jazz piano, saxophone, vocals, drums, and trumpet to fit “my special way” (as the lyrics say).

No stranger to the Jazz genre, Dee Dee Bridgewater’s album Memphis…Yes, I’m Ready (released September 2017) also diverges from her previous oeuvre. Taking for example her penultimate album Dee Dee’s Feather’s (2015), which has a more traditional jazz-bar-with-cigarette-smoke feel to it; Bridgewater scats, has New Orleans trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, and sticks to a more traditional program. In Memphis…Yes, I’m Ready, she abandons, mostly, this sort of style, relying on her Memphis heritage and the traditions of the Blues and R&B to reshape her approach.

My favorite song on the album is a reworking of the Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong’s 1969 song “I Can’t Get Next to You” written for The Temptations (and notably sung by Al Green). And does she ever put her own twist on it! She adds a grooving brass section, a wriggling Hammond organ, and tempo-setting drums and guitar. Not only are Bridgewater’s vocals funky and personal, lively and sincere, but she has a playfulness that makes it, alongside the smooth-foot-stomping beat, a hit and certainly a necessary innovation towards this style of Jazz/R&B. Now the closest she comes to this sort of song and style is her track, “Big Chief” on her previous album, but still, Memphis…Yes, I’m Ready leaves all her other works behind, fully embracing the Memphis Blues in the style of John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, W.C. Handy, or even Keb’ Mo’ (though he’s more Delta Blues).

Although both singers have that soul-gospel voice, they differ in presentation, where
LaBelle’s has a darker tone (similar to Billie Holliday or Nina Simone) and Bridgewater is a bit more playful in a traditional vocalese sense (think of Ella Fitzgerald or Anita O’Day). Taking a look at their contemporaries on the jazz stage, there is certainly a difference in approach to the genre. Brazilian singer and pianist Eliane Elias combines classic standards with Brazilian beats, Canadian singer and pianist Diana Krall applies her contralto range to her own compositions and to standards from The Great American Songbook, American singer Stacey Kent ranges from Sambas to dreamy compositions by her husband to traditional standards, and American singer and guitarist Madeleine Peyroux combines her half-French heritage with blues and contemporary classics. However, none of these artists venture into the Jazz-Soul-R&B-Blues territory like LaBelle and Bridgewater.

It is a disappointment that the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album have so
shamefully disregarded these two albums, though I will say that Cécile McLorin Salvant’s 2018 win for Dreams & Daggers and Gregory Porter’s 2017 win for Take Me To the Alley have opened the genre up a bit. Yet one suspects, and primarily with Memphis…Yes, I’m Ready, that with the non-traditional style of Jazz, these albums were rather lost in the category guidelines. All the same, this does little to diminish the impact that LaBelle and Bridgewater have had on the blending of genres itself, and this is, perhaps, a more important and laudable achievement. | Patti LaBelle on Twitter

About Konstantin

Born in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, Konstantin N. Rega studies British & American Literature and Creative Writing at The University of Kent in Canterbury, England. Rega has been published by The Claremont Review, Pointed Circle, Four Ties Lit Review, AOM, Minetta Review, Platform Review, Crack the Spine, Badlands Literary Journal, and has won the ZO Magazine Silver Prize for Poetry, and is currently a Review Assistant for Newfound. Rega also presents Jazz Jams on CSRfm 97.4.


Article by Konstantin N. Rega of Neo Modern Konstantine | Header Image By Sandra Alphonse | The Black Lion is a humble interdisciplinary journal that values your voice. For contribution opportunities, Join As A Contributor; to learn more about submitting to the journal’s creative magazine, visit the The Wire’s Dream Magazine: Submit. | Copyright Policy

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