Posted by Joanne KeeSunday, 09 November 2014 22:36
Dee Alexander speaks to Short Takes
Dee Alexander speaks to Short Takes
There are some songs Chicago jazz singer Dee Alexander doesn’t care to sing.
Billie Holliday’s Strange Fruit, about a racist lynching in America’s mid-West in the 1930s, is one of them.
“We are all aware of it. The lyrics have been done and overdone, but not coming from me,” says Alexander.
A guest of this year’s Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival, Alexander is keenly aware of her musical heritage.
“Billie Holliday, Nina Simone … they had a rough time. And that’s why I pay homage to them. I don’t take the sacrifices they made for granted at all. They paved the way for artists like me, making things just a little bit easier.”
Even as a tot, Alexander could hear the sadness in Holliday’s voice.
“The life that she led. The experiences she had. You could feel the pain in the gut of your stomach.”
While Alexander acknowledges Holliday’s influence, alongside other great vocalists such as Sarah Vaughn and Dina Washington and instrumentalists such as John Coltrane and Miles Davis, she gravitates towards her more upbeat material.
“If you talk to any of my friends, they will tell you that I am a very happy-go-lucky individual,’’ says the low-maintenance diva.
“I find humour in the strangest things.
“I mean, I have my moments — we’re human, it’s good to feel a little pain — but I don’t believe in wallowing in it.
“I don’t even know if that’s a realistic way of thinking because life comes with so much baggage, but sunshine always breaks through.”
Alexander’s glass-half-full philosophy shines through on her most recent album, Songs My Mother Loves, a collection of material acknowledging her first major influence.
“Every Sunday, my brothers and I would be awakened to the wonderful music my mother played while she did the ironing.
“I decided to do a tribute to her while I still have her.”
When Alexander asked her mother for her input, she ended up with four albums’ worth of material.
“It was so difficult to decide. But we started performing them, breathing life into them, changing up a little bit.”
And eventually the album, launched in Chicago in August, came into being.
Among the chosen tracks are jazz classic Perdido, performed by Vaughn, Washington and Ella Fitzgerald, to name but a few, the Bille Holliday tune Now Or Never, Softly As In A Morning Sunrise, tackled by Frank Sinatra, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, and Soul Serenade, performed by Aretha Franklin and the Allman Brothers.
Alexander will perform tracks from Songs My Mother Loved, and originals from her 2009 album Wild Is The Wind over three nights (Wednesday, November 5, Friday, November 7, and Saturday, November 8) when she makes her Australian debut at Foundry 616 in Ultimo as part of the Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival.
Other highlights of the event, which runs from November 5-12, include the return of Australian-born, New York-based saxophonist Lisa Parrott, who will perform at the Seymour Centre’s Sound Lounge on Saturday, November 8, and at a free event in the courtyard earlier the same day with Ellen Kirkwood’s Fat Yajoozah.
Jazz singer Dee Alexander relishes both the experimental and mainstream aspects of her repertoire. Photo: Supplied
It was the music she heard each week when her mother was ironing: Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Abbey Lincoln, Miles Davis and more. They seeped into Dee Alexander’s pre-school consciousness and heart and stayed there. So years later, when she took to singing, perhaps it was inevitable that the Chicagoan ended up pursuing jazz rather than the R&B with which she started her career.
“I loved the freedom, the chances that you could take singing jazz,” she says on the telephone. “I like taking chances. How else will find out if something works unless you try it?”
Unlike most jazz singers, who hug the mainstream of the idiom as if danger lurks in every eddy, Alexander has relished singing in the more experimental context of Chicago’s renowned Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). “I’m really fortunate,” she says, “to have had the advantage of working with such wonderful and creative musicians; of thinking outside of the box, and knowing how to come back into the box. And that’s nothing that you can actually sit in a classroom [and learn] or get out of a book.”
Alexander is about to make her first visit to Australia to headline this year’s Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival. Her albums suggest a singer of the quality of Dianne Reeves or Cassandra Wilson, and she is happy to acknowledge her influences. “I’m honoured when someone says I remind them of Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday or Nina Simone,” she says. “That’s a great compliment, because these great ladies paved the way for me and for future generations to come… Everyone is influenced by someone or something, and everybody has their own voice. It’s just a matter of finding it.”
Nonetheless she is adamant that there is no substitute for experience when it comes to imbuing a lyric with truth. “When you’ve lived life, when you’ve been in love and had heartbreak – all of those things make a great artist even greater. I’m not wishing anything bad on anyone! It’s unfortunate that you have to go through such turmoil and pain, but I think that’s when a person can really dig deep into their soul to express the feelings that they’re experiencing at that time.”
Dee Alexander plays Foundry 616, November 5, 7 and 8. The Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival runs November 5-12.