Alexander Pays Tribute to Hendrix and Brown
It was as billed as “Dee Alexander’s Funkin’ With Electric Soul,” but this tribute to two of popular music’s most innovative visionaries—Jimi Hendrix and James Brown—could just as easily have been named (with a nod to Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) “Ancient to the Future: The Mission Continues.” In the past, the AACM has honored ancestors ranging from African griots through swing-era big band composers to post-Trane freedom-seekers. This time, vocalist Alexander, backed by a group she christened the Evolution Arkestra (players from several incarnations of her ongoing Evolution Ensemble, reunited for the occasion), kicked the Mothership into warp speed and brought it a few generations forward.
Despite the “Electric” reference in the billing, the Arkestra mostly eschewed pyrotechnics, even during the Hendrix set (the show’s first half). Pianist Miguel de la Cerna played a standard grand; cellist Tomeka Reid and bassists Harrison Bankhead and Junius Paul worked relatively straightahead. Drummer Ernie Adams didn’t try to summon the slag-heap bombast of Mitch Mitchell or Buddy Miles, but the basses and cello filled in masterfully, alternating between furiously picked pizzicato runs and stuttering arco groans, and occasionally joining forces to create window-rattling sonic booms. Guitarist Scott Hesse invoked Hendrix’s visionary fury by using precision, dynamic flexibility and rhythmic drive to build intensity and create music almost as riveting as anything Jimi could have summoned with his fabled high-velocity fusillades.
Out in front, Alexander brought the full power of her vocal range and dynamic versatility to the likes of “Manic Depression,” “Purple Haze,” “All Along The Watchtower” (recast as a Celtic-tinged ballad), “If 6 Was 9” and especially “Hey Joe,” which she mined for its tragedy, portraying the murderous protagonist as a doomed outlaw in the mold of Stagger Lee, Railroad Bill, or even the lost souls running the streets outside the Cultural Center itself, whom she seemed to be addressing when she pleaded, “Joe … it ain’t worth it, man, to take a life … put the gun down, Joe, please … stop the killing!” as the auditorium erupted into shouts and applause.
The Arkestra played an even more dominant role during the second half, ramping up the percussiveness and adding a swing-tinged impetus to the relentless circularity of James Brown’s atavistic on-the-one funk. Hesse effectively evoked the JBs’ horn charts with his crisp chordal attack; Alexander toughened her timbre, leapt octaves with audacity and spiked up the party with some saucy dance moves, even indulging in a bit of playful booty-grinding with a volunteer from the audience. She delivered “Body Heat” as an ecstatic sensual/spiritual meld; she recast “Try Me” as a neo-soul ballad; she recited Brown’s litany of accomplishments in “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” with noblesse-oblige stateliness, then intensified into a steel-girded velvet croon to affirm that “it wouldn’t be nothing without a woman or a girl.” “Soul Power” and the chant from “Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud” were appropriately anthemic, leavened with Alexander’s ever-present sense of spirituality and optimism.
As an added treat, the concert was taped for NPR’s Dec. 31 New Year’s Eve Toast Of the Nation broadcast; veteran Chicago radio personality Richard Steele led the house in a “midnight” countdown (at about 10 p.m.), which Alexander and the Arkestra followed with “Auld Lang Syne” and a reprise of “Make It Funky” that sent everyone home in an appropriately festive mood. It was a fitting conclusion to an evening in which some of the world’s most formidable jazz artists had summoned the same spirit of revolutionary ecstasy and improvisational fearlessness that drove both Hendrix and Brown in their heyday. Just as those trailblazers did, Alexander and her cohorts reminded us that uplift, righteous social commentary, genre-shattering musicianship and funky-good-time partying can coexist if that journey “to the future” is to mean anything at all.