There are going to be some surprised faces in the audience at Dee Dee Bridgewater's Spoleto performances — people who are expecting the Grammy and Tony winner to put on her usual set of pitch-perfect jazz. And that's only fair; she's spent much of her long, acclaimed career spreading the gospel of jazz, performing standards from the Great American Songbook, paying tribute to giants like Billie Holiday and performing with legends like Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, and Dizzy Gillespie. She even hosted her own jazz-centric radio show on NPR, replacing Branford Marsalis as the host of JazzSet for over 23 years.
But virtually none of that will come into play on Bridgewater's new album (and by extension, her new stage show). The album, called Memphis, is a deep dive into vintage blues and R&B, including covers of songs by B.B King ("The Thrill Is Gone"), Otis Redding ("Try A Little Tenderness") and Bobby "Blue" Bland ("Going Down Slow"). And since the album was recorded at Memphis' Royal Studios, the site of the legendary producer Willie Mitchell's greatest triumphs with Al Green, she's paying tribute to them as well with a cover of Green's version of "I Can't Get Next To You."
"I've wanted to do a blues project for a while," Bridgewater says. "And I decided about three years ago that I needed to go back to Memphis because I hadn't been back since my family left when I was three. After driving around and finding the street I lived on I realized that was what I should home in on: This city. My city. And the music I used to listen to growing up."
So if she left Memphis when she was three, how did she hear these songs growing up? Through the magic of AM radio, one station in particular. "I'm doing music that I could hear on a radio station called WDIA out of Memphis in the '50s and '60s," she says. "Late at night in Flint, Michigan I could get the station. It didn't come in really clear but I could get it."
Interestingly enough, Bridgewater has never done any of these songs onstage, let alone in the studio. "This is all blues and soul music," she says. "It's not part of my repertoire at all. It's different, but it's music that I feel comfortable with because it's the music I grew up on. So it's always been in me."
To add some further contradictions to the mix, the album was co-produced by Kirk Whalum, a saxophonist known as much for his smooth-jazz stylings as Bridgewater is for her jazz standards. "Royal Studio has a huge history, and I asked Kirk if he would produce with me because I didn't know the musicians in Memphis," she says. "I wanted him to be my guide because he's from Memphis and I thought he could help me pull things together."
And just about as soon as she brought him on, Bridgewater laid down the law. "This is the first album of mine that I consciously planned, so when Kirk and I sat down, I said, 'This is not smooth jazz," she says with a laugh. "We are not doing a smooth jazz album. He'd come up with arrangements and I'd say, 'Nope, too smooth,' and so we'd basically came up with the arrangements in the studio with the musicians."
Keeping the songs as true to her concept as possible was important for Bridgewater from the beginning. "I'm just trying to bring the focus back to Memphis and the Memphis sound," she says. "I don't know if it's a change in my approach, but I'm not scatting. The level of improv isn't quite the same, because there are other components to the music to think about. You have a framework to work within. I have to respect the arrangements, or it's going to throw the other people in the band off. I just wanted to really do the material in the style the songs were done originally. I wanted to make sure I was getting the 'Memphis sound' on this album, because that's what the album is about. It's about Soulville."
As for the live show, which Bridgewater describes as a revue with horns and backing vocalists, she's looking forward, with maybe just a little extra glee, to throwing the audiences who think they'll know what they're getting for a serious loop. "I think the surprise will come for the listeners who are used to hearing me sing more of the American Songbook and the jazz people that I have honored," she says. "People have really gotten used to that aspect. It's going to surprise people I do believe, but in a good way."