More than 50 years ago, Pops Staples of The Staple Singers wrote “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad),” drawing inspiration from the Little Rock Nine: teens who were prevented from attending a segregated Arkansas high school until President Eisenhower sent federal troops to protect them.
This Saturday, Dee Dee Bridgewater sang a powerful version of the song at the eighth annual Montclair Jazz Festival, calling it a “reflection of things going on today, unfortunately.” Those not sure what she was talking about found out soon enough, when they learned what had happened that day in Charlottesville.
So the song was extremely timely. But Bridgewater also performed it because she took the festival appearance as an opportunity to showcase her upcoming album Memphis … Yes, I’m Ready album, due out Sept. 15. A Memphis native, Bridgewater recorded the album as a tribute to the city and the many great artists who have lived or recorded there.
Her jazz roots came through occasionally via scat interludes, though mainly, she approached the material — including classics such as “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “B-A-B-Y,” “The Thrill Is Gone,” a funky “Don’t Be Cruel,” a slinky, sultry “Hound Dog” and an explosive “Try a Little Tenderness” — as a blues or soul singer would. This may not be ideal for a jazz club, but was perfectly suited for the Montclair Jazz Festival — a free, outdoor, family-oriented all-day event at Nishuane Park that attracts everyone from jazz purists to those with very little prior exposure to the genre.
Bridgewater closed with another well-received number: “Purple Rain,” not featured on the album, but added to the set as a tribute to the late Prince.
There was plenty of more traditionally jazz-oriented music throughout the day, including a set by the piano virtuoso Cyrus Chestnut (performing with his trio) and big band music from the Jazz House Big Band (whose set include a guest appearance by Bridgewater, dueting with Claudia Nketia on “I Just Found Out About Love”). Simultaneously with the main stage music, Louis Prima Jr. and the Witness played classic swing and jump blues on a second stage.
After Bridgewater, the festival-ending set by A Christian McBride Situation — a jazz-fusion supergroup featuring McBride on bass, DJ Logic on turntables, Rachel Z on keyboards, Bernard Purdie on drums, Adam Rogers on guitar and Antoinette Henry on vocals — seemed a little anticlimactic. Their set was full of relaxed but funky grooves and long, exploratory solos; it was great in its own way, but very different from Bridgewater’s intense energy and sharp focus.
They did close with their biggest crowd-pleaser, though: A cover of Rose Royce’s disco era hit “Car Wash,” with all the day’s performers invited back onstage to dance and sing along.
The Montclair Jazz Festival is produced by the Montclair-based educational organization, Jazz House Kids. (McBride is Jazz House Kids’ artistic chair as well as the husband of its president and founder, Melissa Walker.) Jazz House Kids will celebrate its 15th anniversary with an Oct. 24 concert at NJPAC in Newark featuring Andra Day, Sheila E., David Sanborn, Kenny Barron and others.
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