Opera House, Wellington Jazz Festival
Thursday, June 4
It’s going to be pretty tough to beat the opening night concert at Wellington’s 2015 Jazz Festival. It’s tough enough to try to put some of it into words. Where to begin? Well Ms Bridgewater appeared to be – introduced by our bandleader and trumpeter Irvin Mayfield as “the best living jazz singer” – built from the parts of other great singers. She had Ella Fitzgerald’s scatting ability, the presence and soul and oomph of Sarah Vaughan, the sass of Anita O’Day, that ability shared with Cassandra Wilson (who has previously owned this festival on the very same stage) to embody each song through sincere characterisations, there was a touch of Billie Holiday still there too, a layover from her time playing the Lady Day role on stage. She also appeared to have Tina Turner’s legs…
Bridgewater sang us through evergreens, always with the NOLA twist. Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans, What A Wonderful World, Big Chief, huge songs. Sometimes they seemed bigger – and better – than they’d ever been.
And for that we must also thank the finely tuned New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. Mayfield was an amazing presence, driving an imaginary ride cymbal as he pushed the band forward, whispering out the highest, softest, longest single notes on his own horn, or standing back to allow a stampede of trumpeters to go all Kansas City Cutting Contest on a version of St. James Infirmary that could make you forget all over versions – no mean feat, particularly when Ms. Wilson had made that seem so very special in her unique way just a couple of years earlier.
As good as the music, and it really was all fabulous, was the way it was served – infectious laughter from Bridgewater and Mayfield, band in-jokes explained away and gimmicks that transcended novelty value. A couple of the horn players took turns to sing ballads – one even nailed the most incredible kazoo solo you could ever hope to hear and see.
But we were on side from the start – you see Mayfield decided to start the night with a version of New Zealand’s National Anthem. Cute, and even when the struggled to really nail it the gesture was more than enough. The audience, tentative at first, took to their feet, some even bothered to belt out the four or five words they’ve committed to heart. From there it was game over. We were always going to love the show.
There was no resting on laurels though – a zipping rendition of Benny Goodman’s Sing, Sing, Sing had everyone hooked before Bridgewater was even introduced.
The interplay between her and Mayfield, the shared love of the music, the passion and talent of the extraordinary 18-piece orchestra….it was about the best a live show could ever be.
And then they encored with an authentic ‘second line’ march through the audience, the horns then all gathering side of stage for Bridgewater and the rhythm section to close off the final tune. It appeared they had in fact given us their all. And as much as we had loved it there was obvious evidence that the musicians had too.