Dee Dee Bridgewater, jazz’s most charismatic female vocalist, has turned her career into a fabulous creative journey. From her brilliant hard bop tribute to Horace Silver on 1995’s “Love and Peace” to her emotionally taut exploration of the music of Kurt Weill on 2002’s “This Is New” and her love letter to France on 2005’s “J’ai Deux Amours,” Bridgewater has created a series of highly personal projects that reach far beyond the standard repertoire.
But her latest destination is her most personal yet, as she immersed herself in Mali’s famously rich music culture and forged a powerful connection with her African roots. Bridgewater performs with many of the Malian musicians featured on her new album “Red Earth” (EmArcy) on Friday at Herbst Theatre as part of the 25th Annual San Francisco Jazz Festival’s opening weekend.
Traveling with her working quartet featuring Puerto Rican pianist Edsel Gomez, bassist Ira Coleman and Argentine percussionist Minino Garay, Bridgewater combined traditional West African instrumentation with a jazz rhythm section to interpret ancient standards from the griot tradition and new pieces commenting on life in Mali from a female perspective.
She’s hardly the first American jazz musician to collaborate with West African artists, but few have created such a compelling synthesis, working from the ground up.
“This red earth has possessed me all my life, and when I got off the plane and saw it in Mali, I knew I had come home,” Bridgewater says. “Everywhere I looked I saw people who looked familiar. The customs that they have are customs that black Americans have today. Ira came to me and said ‘Dee Dee, it’s answered so many questions about why I think the way I do and why I am the way I am.’ This music is so rich. It’s completed me. I feel like I’ve really found my own voice and I can’t go back and do traditional jazz.”
Bridgewater doesn’t entirely abandon the jazz canon on “Red Earth,” opening the album with Mongo Santamaria’s classic “Afro Blue.” In a canny move, she uses Nina Simone’s “Four Women” as a bridge connecting a jazz matriarch with Mali’s tradition of powerful female vocalists. The most memorable tracks find Bridgewater in various forms of dialogue with incandescent Malian stars. On “Bambo,” an influential protest againstpolygamy, she joins the song’s composer, Tata Kouyate.
Bridgewater seems slightly awed by the great Wassoulou vocalist Oumou Sangaré on “Djarabi” (Oh My Love) while the young Kabiné Kouyaté, who joins Bridgewater at Herbst, is an eager jazz pupil on “The Griots.”