By David Whiteis
Chicago vocalist Dee Alexander, still celebrating the recent release of her long-awaited debut CD Wild Is The Wind (Blujazz), has been commissioned by the Jazz Institute of Chicago to write and perform new music for this year's Chicago Jazz Festival. She'll be accompanied by the same lineup she featured at her Millennium Park tribute to Dinah Washington and Nina Simone last year: her trio - pianist Miguel de la Cerna, bassist Harrison Bankhead, and drummer Leon Joyce, Jr. - along with a string quartet and a brass trio consisting of saxophonist Ari Brown, trombonist Steve Berry, and trumpeter Marquis Hill.
Given the whirlwind of activity that's been her life since her CD came out, it comes as no surprise that Dee is still working out the program's details. She has, however, settled on a theme. "Since it's the Chicago Jazz Festival," she says, "and I have been commissioned by [the JIC and] the City of Chicago, and I am a Chicagoan, I was thinking that Chicago would be the theme. I've been to a lot of places but there's nothing like flying over that skyline, coming back home. I don't care how exotic a place you've been - I know it sounds cliché, but there's no place like home."
As usual, she's collaborating on the project with de la Cerna, who is also her musical director: "We're putting our heads together. I'm writing lyrics, he's writing music, I'm coming up with musical ideas, he's also coming up with lyrics. We're working separately, and then we're going to come together and put all of our ideas together. That's how we work."
Characteristically, Dee is approaching this performance with more than "just" music in mind. Although she's utterly unpretentious about it, Dee Alexander is a woman of deep spirituality, and she makes a conscious effort to try to give back the blessings she has received, as an artist and as a person, over the course of her career. She hopes to do just that at the Jazz Fest, honoring a man whom she considers to be a fellow traveler, both musically and otherwise. And, again characteristically, hers will be a gesture signifying both gratitude and triumph.
Pianist and AACM elder statesman Muhal Richard Abrams is booked to close out the three-day Festival on Sunday night, besides being the event's artist-in-residence. Per her own request, Dee will appear at the Petrillo Music Shell directly before his set. "He was here in town a couple years ago," she remembers. "We were performing at the old Velvet [Lounge] and he came by there. After our performance he said, 'Could I talk to you for a minute?' He said, 'You know, I've worked with a lot of singers. But you have a sound. All singers don't have a sound.' And he said, 'The universe needs to be exposed to your sound.' So my intention is, I want to hand deliver to him a CD. I want to remind him, give him my CD and say, 'Here's my sound - let me know what you think.'"
Dee's admirers already know what that "sound" is. Her three-plus octave range, spot-on intonation, timbral flexibility, and improvisational imagination are among the most daunting in contemporary music but - remembering what she learned from her mentor, the late reedman "Light" Henry Huff - she never uses them to show off, or to ignite self-indulgent pyrotechnics. "Sometimes," she'll remind you, "there's beauty in just silence. There's beauty in taking a rest, and to prepare the ear for the next beautiful notes."
Nonetheless, fearlessness is her credo. "Freedom!" she exults. "Taking chances, not being afraid, being uninhibited. Finding new things all the time. Storytelling, just interpreting sound, and there are so many different types of sounds, and it's limitless."
"Everything's been so wonderful," she adds, thinking of the reception her CD has garnered and the explosion of activity that has followed in its wake. "I'm like an oak tree with roots that are firmly planted in the ground, branches just stretchin' up into the universe. Leaves are growing - I'm just seeing what's out there, what I can grab a hold of. Just enjoying the journey. My aim is to just keep producing great music that people love. As long as I feel good about whatever it is that I do, it'll be good. It's just an adventure, an odyssey, and I'm glad to be on this ride."