We already knew that Dee Alexander could sing. But on Friday night she reminded a large audience of just how well.
Celebrating the release of her newest album, "Songs My Mother Loves," Alexander covered a remarkable range of sounds, styles and attitudes at the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts. Certainly it would be difficult to name many contemporary female jazz vocalists who address bebop, blues, ballads and what-not with comparable ease. Add to that Alexander's technical acuity, interpretive imagination and willingness to try something new at a moment's notice, and she emerges as the complete jazz singer, a seriously endangered species in our vocally impoverished era.
It has taken Alexander a lifetime to achieve this kind of mastery, but a music industry that prizes youth and surface glamour above all else does not necessarily value performers of Alexander's artistic stature and vintage. This partly explains why the Chicago singer still holds a day job, even though she could hold her own against any major female jazz vocalist touring the world today.
"Songs My Mother Loves" could position Alexander for wider acclaim, if only because the repertoire is so accessible. As its title suggests, the album revisits standards of an earlier era, yet in ways that render them fresh (or at least fresher). That the recording also includes a little edgier fare, as well, suggests that aficionados might be drawn to it.
Ultimately, though, music matters more than commerce, and in this realm Alexander has held herself to a high standard on disc and in concert.
"Perdido" may be a song her mother loves, but it long since entered the realm of ancient history. Early in her concert Alexander stripped away its mildew, turning a well-worn tune into a vehicle for ample vocal invention. Who else in jazz singing today produces such silvery high notes, such throaty low pitches and such dusky tones in the middle register? Who else swoops from down low in her instrument to up high with such naturalness of delivery and seeming effortlessness of execution?
After awhile, it didn't even matter that Alexander was singing "Perdido." It was her voice, her unusual phrasings, her range of color and texture that commanded attention.
Jazz devotees know that Nancy Wilson long has owned "Guess Who I Saw Today," and brave is the singer who attempts to perform it today. But Alexander's reading was so idiosyncratic and hyper-dramatic as to render comparisons irrelevant. While she sang "Guess Who I Saw Today," it belonged to her.
For starters, Alexander took her sweet time, lingering over every withering line of a song about a woman who spots her man in the enraptured company of another woman. Then, too, Alexander boldly played for both comedy and tragedy, the mock indignation of her opening verses giving way to righteous anger by the song's conclusion. And let's not forget her vocal tone, Alexander switching from a purr to a snarl and back at will.
Listeners often associate "What a Difference a Day Makes" with Dinah Washington, a Chicago diva of an earlier era, and her recording emerges from memory at the mere mention of the title. Alexander's version carried faint echoes of Washington but also tonal shadings unique to Alexander's instrument. Accompanied only by guitarist Scott Hesse and bassist Harrison Bankhead, Alexander brought forth a degree of intimacy that contrasted crisply with Washington's quasi-operatic manner.
Many of the musicians from the recording shared the stage with Alexander, which meant listeners could savor Corey Wilkes' concise trumpet lines, Ari Brown's soulful tenor saxophone accompaniments, Ernie Adams' multilayered drum work and, above all, Miguel de la Cerna's lush pianism and creative musical direction.
But the spotlight naturally remained fixed on Alexander, who offered undeniable proof that the art of superior jazz singing still lives.