Dee Dee Bridgewater and the New Orleans jazz orchestra, led by trumpet player Irving Mayfield, came to Montreal with the ambitious goal of transporting its audience to a small New Orleans jazz club for the evening. They certainly had their work cut out for them. The band’s energy, though relentless and entertaining, clashed with the formality of Théâtre Maisonneuve, and the audience members seemed at times unsure of how to react; predominantly white, primarily white-haired, and presumably not jazz club regulars, they began the evening clapping politely and dutifully after every instrumental solo, and staying firmly put in their pre-assigned seats even as Dee Dee danced herself breathless onstage.
Nonetheless, the singer and her band did nothing to tone down their over-the-top performance – quite the contrary. The very first tune, “One Fine Thing” included an explosive scat solo and elaborate harmonies from the band, and ended with Bridgewater and Mayfield grinding suggestively onstage, leading to a certain amount of nervous laughter from more than a few attendees in the hall. However, as the night went on, the performers’ infectious enthusiasm began to warm the initially reticent hall. Throughout, Dee Dee Bridgewater’s larger-than-life personality shone through her frequent running commentary and immensely powerful voice, which she used alternately for emotional or humorous effect. Indeed, she seemed to feel comfortable switching rapidly between touchingly vulnerable ballads, such as “Missing New Orleans”, and scat solos in which she used her voice to caricaturize a trombone, a stunt that had the audience laughing and cheering enthusiastically.
By the time the classic “St. James Infirmary Blues” came around, the audience had been clearly won over. Dee Dee stumbled around onstage, pretending to be drunk as she sang the well-known lyrics, “Now that you have heard my story, hand me another shot of rye…”. One of the most exciting points of the evening, judging by the cheers from spectators, was a session of trades from the trumpet section, in which each of the talented musicians attempted to outdo the other in a series of short 16-bar solos. Each musician showed off by including higher notes and more trills in his solo, and in turn was greeted with increasing enthusiasm from audience members. At the end of the song, many spectators even rose to their feet to give the trumpet players a standing ovation.
Though it was certainly a display of technically impressive playing, I couldn’t help but feel as though these stunts had begun to do away with musicality in order to impress. This wasn’t the only time during the concert where I found myself having this reflection. In one of the last tunes of the evening, “There’s Nothing Like New Orleans”, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Irving Mayfield began to trade solos. What began as simple, melodic lines eventually turned shrill and slightly confusing as Dee Dee attempted to copy the rapid trumpet lines being played by Mayfield. All in all, the show prioritized entertainment and showmanship above all else. At times, musicality was set aside for the sake of entertainment, humor, and a certain degree of showing off.
But perhaps there is something to be said for that – by the end of the show, the entire jazz orchestra began to march through the middle of audience, as everyone in the audience, slightly awkward and hesitant at the beginning of the evening, now stood to dance, laugh, and clap along with the musicians circulating between the seats. As everyone filed out with a huge smile on their face, I figured that an important aspect of the New Orleans jazz spirit had been captured after all.