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Will Chicago's most daring and virtuosic jazz singer finally get the recognition she deserves?

Dee Alexander has earned international acclaim, but fame has eluded her. Her great new album, Songs My Mother Loves, might change that.

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Chicago jazz singer Dee Alexander is internationally recognized as one of the most gifted and versatile vocal stylists alive. Ben Ratliff at the New York Times named her 2013 Newport Jazz Festival performance one of his ten favorite live-music experiences of the year, calling it "both low key and extraordinary, with well-worn standards and risky originals, earthiness and high-flown mysticism." Her 2009 album Wild Is the Wind (Blujazz) met with nearly universal acclaim, earning a rare five-star review in DownBeat magazine and a place on the cover of a special issue devoted to the best CDs of the new millennium.

Even before that album—the first under her own name to be released by an established stateside label—Alexander was hardly a well-kept secret. In 2007 the Tribune named her one of its Chicagoans of the Year, and at that point she was already widely praised for her expansive, even audacious palette. Her range includes the classic melodic style of beloved singers such as Ella Fitzgerald (honored in Alexander's 2012 Chicago Jazz Festival appearance), the aggressive funk fusion she polished during her 80s and 90s tenure with the Ken Chaney Xperience, and the iconoclastic free jazz she learned in the late 70s and early 80s from percussionist Baba Eli Hoenai and woodwind virtuoso "Light" Henry Huff. Her onstage flamboyance, personal warmth, fearless virtuosity, and impeccable taste in material and sidemen have earned her a reputation as one of the most satisfying and challenging live acts in contemporary jazz.

But that's not to say Alexander is living the life of a star. She still works her day job at UIC, preparing grant and contract paperwork for four campuses as part of the Office of Research Services. She performs frequently in Chicago, but aside from that, she tends to play mostly at overseas festivals rather than touring the States—though she does have a concert at the Kennedy Center in December with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra. The infrastructure that used to support jazz artists has withered like most of the rest of the music business, which makes it difficult for Alexander (and others in her position) to get out on the road. But even so, she should be better known. New York critic Howard Mandel, president of the Jazz Journalists Association, said as much after seeing her at Jazz Fest in 2012, and his opinion hasn't changed. "Dee had a good platform for further exposure at the 2013 Newport Jazz Festival, where she was well received," he says. "However, that performance has not to my knowledge produced further bookings for her in New York City, D.C., Boston, Monterrey, San Francisco, and the other places in the U.S. where profiles can be raised."

In some ways the response to Wild Is the Wind mirrors this pattern—the album seemed to make a bigger splash the farther from Chicago it got. It didn't get much airplay here, in part because the city has so little jazz radio, but abroad it was a different story. "The record company has been sending me the [radio] play­lists," Alexander told me not long after Wild Is the Wind came out. "We're playing in Hawaii and Indonesia. I got a text message from [trumpeter] Corey Wilkes. He and [saxophonist] Ernest Dawkins were in Bordeaux, in France, and they were eating lunch, and all of a sudden, he texted me: 'I'm here in Bordeaux, and I'm listening to your music going across the airwaves!'"

Alexander realizes that diminished industry support affects all artists, and she's not self-pitying or bitter about it. "I don't get frustrated by that," she says. "I just feel that when it's my time, it'll happen." In late 2012, when it came time to start recording her new album, Songs My Mother Loves (Blujazz), she took on the expense herself.

The idea for the record had been incubating in Alexander's mind for years. It pays affectionate tribute to the music her mother played around the house when Alexander was a girl—the music that helped propel her into a career as a jazz singer. "One day," she says, "my mother called me up. She said, 'Have you ever thought of singing "Snowbound" by Sarah Vaughan? That's one of my favorite songs.' So the idea came. I was just having some of those treasured memories about songs that my mother would play—Esther Phillips, Dakota Staton, Eddie Jefferson, King Pleasure, Nancy Wilson, Sarah, Nina, Dinah. Every weekend, she would iron and play her music early in the morning; I'd do the laundry, and she'd do the ironing. She still does that. I'll go visit her and hear the music.

"I thought it would be wonderful to pay tribute to my mother, as well as pay tribute to that wonderful music. Miguel [de la Cerna, Alexander's musical director] and I were talking one day. I said, 'You know what? I think it'd be really, really cool if we did a CD based on songs my mother loved.'"

Of course, a CD has to be more than "really, really cool" to succeed. Unless you've got the disposable income and free time to finance and distribute it yourself, you've got to persuade a label that it'll make money. Today even top-tier jazz artists often produce and release their own product, sometimes on shoestring budgets. Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms provide another option for folks willing to swallow their pride and pass the hat in order to see the inside of a studio again.

Alexander wasn't forced to go begging. She raised some of the money for Songs My Mother Loves online, but the crowdfunding platform she used was open to her because she'd won a coveted local prize. In August 2012, Chicago-based nonprofit arts advocacy group the 3Arts Foundation awarded her one of its annual $15,000 stipends. ("I was nominated three times," Alexander remembers. "The third time was the charm.") Using the foundation's 3AP platform, she raised $6,720 from 48 friends and admirers over the next month and a half. Combined with the original 15 grand, that was enough to give her complete control over the recording process, including all the money decisions—her existing label, Blujazz, gave her the green light to do things her way and send them the end result.

"I was able to do this project the way I wanted to do it: live in the studio, have my stellar musicians, bring [alto saxophonist] Oliver Lake in from Jersey, and pay for the mixing," says Alexander. "So I spoke with [Blujazz owner] Greg Pasenko. I said, 'Look, I'm working on the CD,' and he said, 'OK, let's do this.' So we sat down, and we negotiated. It's being distributed; they're taking care of all that, and it's being sent all around the world."

Dee Alexander performs in the Petrillo Music Shell at the 2009 Chicago Jazz Festival. - OSCAR LOPEZ/SUN-TIMES MEDIA
  • Oscar Lopez/Sun-Times Media
  • Dee Alexander performs in the Petrillo Music Shell at the 2009 Chicago Jazz Festival.

Alexander is quick to add that Pasenko probably would've given her the same freedom no matter what. When she made Wild Is the Wind, her first Blujazz production, she had total creative control. "I selected all the material that I wanted to do, just like on this project. But this time, I'm the 'executive producer.' It's an extensive process, and if it's not very well thought-out, it can turn out to be a very expensive process. But I was happy with a lot of the surprises and the ideas that came out of it. That's why I like working live in the studio, because we can bounce ideas and energy off one another."

To make this album, Alexander combined an old-school approach to the studio (live musicians, interacting in real time) with a new-school approach to the money. Likewise an easy blend of the traditional and the avant-garde has always characterized her music, perhaps in part because she was an adult when the inspiration to become a professional musician hit—still young enough to fearlessly embrace the new, but mature enough to value heritage and inheritance. "I wanted to be a radio announcer," she says. "I went to Columbia College; I studied radio and television. I learned how to splice tape—I really dug that you could sit and listen to music all day, and play all types of music, and be exposed to so much music and expose other people to so much music."

When she was in her 20s, Alexander saw vocalists Rita Warford and Iqua Colson, members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, at Obie Creed's Progressive Arts Center at 14th and Michigan, and a light switched on in her head. "It was this cool scene, all these artists and their wares—they were selling jewelry and artwork. But the music! Iqua Colson and Rita Warford were onstage and they were singing, doing all this improvisation, and I was like, 'I don't understand it, but I love it!'

"I think what really inspired me was that they were bold and they were courageous, to get up there and do all the things that they were doing. Their hair was wild, and what they were doing was wild, and the music was wild. I said, 'God! I really want to do something like this one day.' When I walked into the room, the old Dee Alexander died at the doorway, and the new Dee Alexander was born."

Her late-70s and early-80s gigs with Baba Eli Hoenai's Prada Ensemble and "Light" Henry Huff's group Breath earned her immediate recognition in the small, tight-knit free-jazz community. Huff became one of her most valued friends and mentors. "If it were not for the time and experience that I had with 'Light' Henry Huff," she says, "I don't think I'd be here doing what I'm doing right now. I learned so much from him, just being with him—his work ethic, the spirituality. He was such a spiritual being, and the conversations that we would have all the time were just—I've never had that with anyone. He was my best friend."

Huff taught her to be fearless. "He had a talk with me one day," Alexander says. "He said, 'You just gotta be totally uninhibited. You have to become one with the music, and you can't be concerned about what people think.'" She's lived that lesson ever since, whether the music is "out" (her boundary-shattering exchanges with vocalist Mankwe Ndosi and multi-instrumentalist Douglas Ewart) or "in" (her funky, club-friendly sets with Chaney). "I cut my teeth on 'out' stuff," she says. "I've had the depth of experience with the AACM, but I also had ten years with the Ken Chaney Xperience."

In the mid-1990s, Alexander struck out on her own, and she soon expanded her reach to include increasingly high-profile appearances out of town and overseas. Several better-established artists recruited her for their recordings, including trumpeter Malachi Thompson (who featured her on three Delmark CDs) and R. Kelly (who used her on 2000's TP-2.com and 2004's Happy People/U Saved Me). Her output under her own name, though, consisted of just a few self-released albums: Live at the HotHouse in 2004, and then, in 2008, both Unplugged and Evolution Ensemble: Live at Hyde Park Art Center. And in most cases, neither the production nor the range of material did justice to Alexander's talents.

"I was just having some of those treasured memories about songs that my mother would play—Esther Phillips, Dakota Staton, Eddie Jefferson, King Pleasure, Nancy Wilson, Sarah, Nina, Dinah. Every weekend, she would iron and play her music early in the morning; I'd do the laundry, and she'd do the ironing."—Dee Alexander

Even after Wild Is the Wind, Alexander remained most celebrated for her live performances. Not only does she have a commanding voice and stage presence, but she also uses top-shelf musicians, giving them plenty of room to stretch out. Her current core group consists of pianist de la Cerna, bassist Harrison Bankhead, and drummer Yussef Ernie Adams. She also leads the more experimental Evolution Ensemble, which includes Adams, cellist Tomeka Reid, guitarist Scott Hesse, and bassist Junius Paul. For Songs My Mother Loves, she fused both groups into the Evolution Arkestra (a nod to Sun Ra) and lined up cameos by the likes of veteran Chicago saxophonist Ari Brown, trumpeter Corey Wilkes, and World Saxophone Quartet cofounder Oliver Lake. Like Alexander, Lake has little use for any imagined lines between adventurous free jazz and more harmonically and rhythmically conventional music. She'd brought him to town for a Lillstreet Art Center fund-raiser, and made sure to get him into the studio during his visit.

Lake says that the very first time he heard Alexander, more than ten years ago, he was struck by "an immediate awareness of her greatness." And he shares her enthusiasm about the new record. "I love Dee," he says. "I was honored to be part of Songs My Mother Loves."

His contributions parallel Alexander's approach to the project. Though the material is heavy on romance, heartbreak, and nostalgia, she avoids the easy temptations of bathos and sentimentality, instead delivering the songs in the voice of a contemporary woman who's powerful as well as vulnerable. She underlines the optimistic message of Julian Priester and Tommy Turrentine's "As Long as You're Living," recorded by Abbey Lincoln in 1959—celebrate the moment, live from the heart, nurture the spirit. Lake's sparse, supple solo reflects that optimism, but it's toughened by his caustic tone—no flaccid easy answers or new-age wafting for him. And on Lincoln's "Lonesome Lover," his angular lines, acidic timbre, and ironically playful runs and skitters redeem the song from self-pity as surely as Alexander's full-bodied declamation at the end.

Alexander's steely reading of the Nancy Wilson standard "Guess Who I Saw Today" likewise keeps the song's betrayed lover from sounding like she's pleading. "It's definitely a soap opera," she says. "I really just wanted to add a little more drama to it: I just so happen to be out shopping, and then I run into my man in a restaurant, cuddled up with this other woman, and I'm like—OK! So this is what you're doing! OK, I saw you! You're busted! All right—now I know what to do. I'm gonna move on."

In Alexander's hands, "What a Difference a Day Makes" (which Dinah Washington made famous in 1959) acquires a Latin tinge, with Hesse providing guitar accompaniment a la Jobim; Juan Tizol's "Perdido" isn't the hot-blooded swing number it was when Ellington recorded it in the early 40s, instead returning to its roots in the Caribbean, with Alexander singing in an impish little-girl mewl.

Other standouts include a bluesy take on Gloria Lynne's mid-60s recording of "Soul Serenade" and a jubilant, Latin-flavored version of Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein's "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise," where Alexander transforms the melody so thoroughly it might as well be an entirely new song; de la Cerna mines fresh ideas from the theme as well, and Adams adds relentless, dancing propulsion.

Perhaps the most striking re-creation, though, is "Nature Boy," best known from Nat "King" Cole's 1948 recording. The song describes a "very strange, enchanted boy," who's returned from a mysterious pilgrimage with the message that "The greatest thing that you will ever learn / Is just to love and give love in return." Given those lyrics, it could easily descend into treacle, and over the years many renditions have done just that. Alexander is known for her dedication to spiritual uplift, in music and in life, and her interpretation is hard-eyed and tough as well as optimistic; Corey Wilkes's muted trumpet provides an appropriately urbane, meditative counterpart for her tender but resolute singing. The arrangement was inspired by a version she sang with Wilkes at Andy's, where he adapted the bass line of Donald Byrd's "Kwame" to the well-known melody. "Corey put the icing on the cake," Alexander says.

It's a cliche that a musician's current project is always her best ever (at least if you ask the musician), but Alexander's enthusiasm about Songs My Mother Loves seems warranted—though a comparison to the more aggressively improvisational Wild Is the Wind is a bit apples-and-oranges, the new album is at least as good. Wilkes, Brown, and the Evolution Arkestra will be on hand for the CD-release party next Friday, August 1, at the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts, and Alexander is stoked about it—for her mother's sake as much as for her own. "She's gonna be the center of attention," Alexander says. "Songs My Mother Loves—it's all for her. The most important thing—and I say this all the time—it starts at home. My mom started me off; she was playing this great music at home. Everybody wasn't blessed to have the mother that I had. Hearing these songs since I was a child, they've become a part of me, a part of my life. Even though the songs have been recorded by other artists, they do it their way; I add a little. Reinventions. Just do it the Dee Alexander way."

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