When the inimitable Chicago jazz singer Dee Alexander was a child, she went to sleep to jazz and woke up to it.
This was largely thanks to her mother, who had the music going in the house constantly. The songs of Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and others were the first music Alexander remembers hearing, and that experience shaped the artist she would become.
To express her gratitude, Alexander has just released "Songs My Mother Loves" (Blujazz), an exceptional collection of standards and lesser-known fare that would be impressive even if you didn't know the back story. Alexander's improvisational inventiveness throughout the recording, as well as the high sheen of her instrument, makes this a milestone in her musical career.
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But to Alexander, above all it's a love song to her mother.
"I have fond memories of laying in bed and just listening to her singing along with Sarah and Dinah, and I grew to love this music just as much," says Alexander, who will celebrate the recording's release with two shows Friday evening at the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts.
The music of "Billie and King Pleasure and Eddie Jefferson – I really, really loved this music," adds Alexander, referencing other titans of jazz singing. "My mother was always singing music for me – she always had time for singing.
"So I thought it would be so fitting for me to do this tribute to my mother while I still have her. People always do tributes after people have passed on. I want my mother to know how much I love and appreciate her. And I wanted to make this a tribute to this music that has been with me since I was a child. I was listening to this music before I was doing anything else – avant-garde or whatever."
Alexander, in other words, is much admired in Chicago and beyond for her fearlessness in embracing experimental vocal and improvisational techniques. But "Songs My Mother Loves" steers closer to mainstream repertory, with Alexander's mother having suggested tunes of an earlier era. Even so, Alexander refreshes very familiar tunes, finding new shades of meaning in "Guess Who I Saw Today," lavishing luscious low tones and thrilling high notes on "Nature Boy," radically re-conceiving "What a Difference a Day Makes."
Moreover, she's joined by a cast of first-rate Chicago musicians, among them saxophonist Ari Brown, trumpeter Corey Wilkes, cellist Tomeka Reid and drummer Ernie Adams, each adding atmospheric accompaniment under the direction of pianist and album co-producer Miguel de la Cerna. Add to this a cameo by alto saxophonist Oliver Lake, and you have a recording that sumptuously features Alexander's uncommonly supple voice.
Nobody could be more pleased with the final result than Alexander's 78-year-old mother, Margaret Washington.
"It's more than fun – words cannot express how I feel," says Washington. "I was telling her yesterday, I got so emotional (listening to it), I had chills running all through me. And then to know that this CD was dedicated to me? Oh, Wow."
Does Washington recall immersing her daughter in music?
"I remember singing to her almost every day when she was young," says Washington. "I always loved music. I would sing the kids to sleep. And in the morning when they get up, I'm singing a song.
"I started out singing nursery rhymes, and then I started singing (music of vocalists) Esther Phillips, Dinah Washington and songs like that."
Nevertheless, Washington "never thought (Alexander) would become a singer," she adds. "But when she graduated from grade school and went to high school, I told her: 'High school can be fun. You just have to learn how to participate in practically everything.'"
After trying her hand at various art forms, Alexander clearly found her calling in jazz. And though some of her musical experiments have been more successful than others (her forays into music of James Brown and Jimi Hendrix have sounded less than persuasive to me), her work in avant-garde and mainstream jazz repertory has few peers, technically or expressively.
What many of her admirers don't realize is that Alexander also keeps a day job working in the Office of Research Services at the University of Illinois at Chicago. How she manages to juggle that with her concert work in Chicago and around the world remains one of the mysteries of 21st century jazz.
"It's a force greater than myself," says Alexander, in trying to explain how she manages her work load. "It's a challenge sometimes. …
"A lot of people ask: When are you going to quit that job? I say, when the time is right."
Considering the strength and musical accessibility of "Songs My Mother Loves" – which was funded in part by an award from the 3Arts advocacy organization – the moment when Alexander can devote full time to her music may be arriving sooner rather than later.