The clown princess sings the blues: Dee Dee Bridgewater live

Dee Dee Bridgewater.

Jazz can be too serious.  Images of the angry Charles Mingus, the intellectual Charlie Parker and the humorless Miles Davis haunt the genre.  The blues themselves draw their name from the stories of heartbreak and misery along the Mississippi in turn of the century America.  And there is perhaps no greater jazz tragedy than the too early passing of Billie Holiday at the age of 44 in 1959.  Yet jazz, as I’ve noted before, is a palette of many colours, and as much virtue as there is in the emotionless pursuit of perfection as exemplified by some of the artists noted above, to me, jazz’s most endearing feature is its capacity for fun.  The joy that can come from jazz is deeper, because it does originate from a place of pain.  It is a cathartic release from a soul that has walked through the fire and emerged with a smile, recognizing that the hardest part of life is in the rear view mirror.  Dee Dee Bridgewater, whose performance at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre last evening paid tribute to the late Ms. Holiday, is someone who knows how to find the fun inside the sorrow, how to wring it from the pores and swing it across the stage in golden platform shoes, while occasionally getting caught on the microphone cord.

In person, Dee Dee Bridgewater is a striking, unusual, inescapably jazz figure – tall, leggy, elegant and glamorous, without a single hair atop her head.  Her background could not be more different than my jazz crush Emilie-Claire Barlow, but they are cut from the same cloth – seasoned performers possessed of extraordinary talent disciplined by impeccable timing and skill.  Bridgewater’s background includes a Tony win on Broadway and work with jazz royalty like Dizzy Gillespie and Dexter Gordon, but even to a modest crowd (that should have been a capacity house – shame on you Burlington) she gives it her absolute all, demonstrating tremendous vocal dexterity by flitting between the notes of Billie Holiday’s best in a flawlessly choreographed dance that with lesser chops could have been a catastrophic mess.    It’s not just a glorified karaoke night – where Billie Holiday’s take on these numbers was one of sorrow, Bridgewater rightly forges her own path, transforming them into songs of power and triumph while still paying tribute to the melancholy voice that originated them.  (Bridgewater can actually do a flawless and spine-chilling impression of Billie Holiday’s voice, but apart from one brief, jaw-dropping demonstration between numbers, rightly steers clear of imitation.)  Songs like “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Lover Man,” and “All of Me” become musical romps.  “Mother’s Son-in-Law” is a sassy double act between Bridgewater and her bass player as she vamps goofily like a way-past-her-prime burlesque madam.  One truly remarkable moment in “Fine and Mellow” sees Bridgewater performing a slide trombone solo – without a trombone.  It borders on comic, even silly as she mimics the movements of the slide, but she captures the sound of the instrument with only her voice, like a jazz Rich Little.  And in “A Foggy Day,” her quartet of piano, bass, drums and sax are each given their moment in the sun, proving that they share Bridgewater’s talent and ability to locate the kernel of joy inside each teardrop and spread it across the stage.

Improvisation lies at the heart of true jazz – bending and twisting the melody this way and that, playing themes to their outstretched limits.  But as Dee Dee Bridgewater shows, that improvisation doesn’t always have to be so goshdarned dour.  She and her band fuse ad libs, missteps and outright screw-ups into a smooth cocktail of pure entertainment.  Unlike her younger contemporaries, Bridgewater is looking back at a long career and understands that she has nothing left to prove – at this point, she’s doing it for the sheer love of music.  It’s a privilege to spend a few hours in the company of such a genuine performer, and one hopes that should Dee Dee Bridgewater pass through these streets again soon, that many more people will avail themselves of a priceless opportunity to watch a true professor of the spirit of jazz show them what it’s all about, and leave them smiling for their trouble.

Breaking the fourth wall: Michael Kaeshammer live

Michael Kaeshammer.

There is an unwritten rule when attending any performance, be it a concert, a play, even a political debate, that nary the twain shall meet.  It is that separation between performer and audience – he is up there, you are down in the seats, and though the performer may banter with you and encourage you to laugh, sing or applaud, that wall remains intact.  An implicit contract exists to ensure that you both remain in your respective spaces.  The trouble for a performer with the sheer energy of jazz pianist Michael Kaeshammer is that his energy defies captivity.  He bursts from the inside with the spirit of music; you can almost sense the electricity crackling from his skin.  He cannot remain confined; not to his piano, certainly not to the stage, and had the venue been open-air you could imagine him trying to jump onto the wing of a passing plane.  That is not to say his performance is anarchic, far from it – one does not get as good as he is without incredible discipline.  Thousands of notes come dancing and flying at you in the space of milliseconds without a single errant strike.  But watching his fingers fly across his instrument makes you wish that a piano had more than 88 keys, just so you could see what he could do with it.

Kaeshammer, German by birth (it’s pronounced CASE-hammer) but a resident of Canada is a disciple of the New Orleans sound with a dash of Victor Borge thrown in for good measure.  Last night’s performance at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre was a master class in the application of limitless verve to a style perfected forty years before he was born.  For him, a live show is not so much a chance to entertain fans as it is an opportunity to push the limits of expectation.  For Kaeshammer, the capacity of a piano isn’t restricted to its ivories:  he draws jazz from its shell, its strings, its lid and even creates an unusual harpsichord-like sound by placing a tambourine inside it.  Kaeshammer’s diverse repertoire pays tribute to the heyday of boogie-woogie (with a few gentle jabs at his father’s traditional rendition of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer”), but tips its hat to a broader era by working in gospel staples like “People Get Ready” and a virtually unrecognizable – in a good way – cover of The Beatles’ “One After 909”.  And he’s just as at home in quieter numbers like the closing encore, Sam Cooke’s timeless classic “A Change is Gonna Come.”  Regular bassist Marc Rogers and drummer Mark McLean are on the train with as much love for the form and love of trickery as the guy at the keyboard:  Rogers wails on both the electric and the acoustic bass like a latter-day Hendrix, while McLean’s hands are little more than a blur as he uses sticks, brushes and fingertips to make a basic five piece drum kit sound like an entire percussion section.  The skill these guys exude is at a level beyond reach of most average musicians; it must frustrate wannabes that they look like they’re having so much darned fun doing it.  Kaeshammer is all smiles as he plays, tapping his feet as if possessed by a musical Pazuzu (or Stompin’ Tom Connors), and yet at any given point prone to get up and stroll around the stage, pop down into the audience and find an empty seat to appreciate the craftsmanship of his bandmates.  It goes without saying, perhaps, that this enthusiasm naturally bleeds through into the audience, who clap, stomp, sing and cheer for more.  This accessibility in watching him perform makes it less like going to a formal show and more like your buddy Mike invited you over for a beer in his den, which happened to have a grand piano and a backing band in it, and they decided on a spontaneous jam.

Like Emilie-Claire Barlow, Michael Kaeshammer proves that the spirit of jazz is alive and well in these chilly climes far beyond the sticky, swampy bayous of Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain, and that it hasn’t been diminished by the deafening wail of pop and hip-hop in the mainstream music scene.  That there is still room for this amazing virtuoso display of ability and exuberance, that music can still surprise you by defying the straitjacket rules of form and function (and what sells well) is cause for thanks, celebration, and a well-deserved standing ovation.  Kaeshammer has no boundaries in either his playing and in his performance, and least of all in the fourth wall.  Indeed, the ability to reach past the proscenium and touch something inside each soul, is the stuff of music itself – something Michael Kaeshammer has certainly figured out.