China Moses: Bringing Back the Good Times

Chris Mosey BY

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I mean I like jazz too but vocal jazz right now is all so low key. I don't know how it got that way. Ella wasn't low key, Sarah wasn't low key, Billie wasn't low key.
China Moses is dedicating her singing career to blowing away the notion that women jazz singers in the present age have to be white and wispy and sing songs that are studiously liberated and sexless.

She was born in Los Angeles in 1978, daughter of jazz doyenne Dee Dee Bridgewater and her second husband, Gilbert Moses, a pioneer of African American theater and director of the 1974 cult blaxploitation movie Willie Dynamite.

"Dad christened me China," she says. "I was supposed to be named Anaïs but when I was born he said, 'Her name is China.' My mom said, 'Yeah? Well, OK... Cool.' He had some kind of poetic explanation I guess, or maybe he was just drunk, I don't know. At first I didn't like it but now I'm really proud of it. I don't think I could find a better stage name."

Gilbert Moses was an extraordinary man. When he was diagnosed with cancer, doctors gave him a year to live. Ten years later, in 1995, he announced that he was tired of fighting the disease and died shortly afterwards. Before he went, he prophesized that his daughter's first record deal would be with Virgin. "Again, I don't really know why," she says. "He was obsessed with the label. He thought it was the artistic record company and that was where I needed to go."

Living in Paris, France with her mother, Moses did indeed make three soul albums for Virgin imprint Source but in the long run the deal didn't work out—"They didn't understand me and I didn't understand them." She is now with Blue Note, who in March, 2009 released her fifth and best album to date, This One's For Dinah, on which she pays homage to her childhood idol, Dinah Washington.

French jazz pianist Raphaël Lemonnier—he studied with Jaki Byard in the US—was responsible for rekindling her enthusiasm for Washington. He invited her to a gig in his native Nîmes and took her on a car trip to the neighboring Camargue, the Rhône delta marshlands, to see the pink flamingos that nest there.

"I had no idea there were flamingoes in France," says Moses. "See, ordinarily, I'm a city girl. I like concrete, cars, loud music and pollution."

In Lemonnier's car, she found a Dinah Washington CD and discovered that he too was a fan. With that, the pianist broached the idea of a series of concerts titled "Gardenias for Dinah." These were followed by the This One's For Dinah album. Moses, who had hitherto seen herself as a soul and R'n'B singer, worried about the way the French jazz community would react, thinking they'd see her as an unwelcome intruder. "In the event it all went amazingly well. I think I may lack certain vocal techniques, I think the album may lack certain qualities but I think we definitely make up for that in the energy we generate."

You can say that again. On a tour to promote the album, backed by a trio fronted by Lemonnier, one of the gigs she played was L'Espace Julien in Marseille. It's a tough city. But a mural featuring a portrait of her mother watched over her as Moses gave a stunning performance, infusing new life into Washington's repertoire.

She ripped her way with great assurance through "Fine, Fine Daddy," "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby?," before getting more soulful for "Cry Me A River" and "Mad About the Boy." The closer was a very feeling rendition of The Queen of the Blues' greatest hit, "What a Diff'rence a Day Made".

But the stand-out number was "Dinah's Blues," Moses' own tribute to Washington (who was christened Ruth Lee Jones, as she reminds us at the outset). "There may be a lot of other chicks in the world but they ain't quite like you," she sang. Then: "They can have your money..." She kicked and shimmied down, at least far as was possible in a strapless, figure-hugging dress. "...They can have your furs..." She kicked and shimmied down again. Then, with the audience momentarily distracted by some pyrotechnics from drummer Jean-Pierre Dérouard, she discreetly hiked her dress back into place, before hammering out the last line, drawing out each syllable, "But they ain't quite like you."

It was an absolute knock-out. She lived rather than sang the song. The recorded version—good though it is—is nothing compared with the way Moses does it live.

It isn't just the sexual aspect of her performances that make them great. She has a commanding and practiced, though at the same time very human, occasionally even self-effacing stage presence. Presence of any kind is something a majority of the myriad of modern day women jazz vocalists simply don't have. No doubt Moses' own has been bolstered as a result of her exposure as a hostess on a regular MTV, France hip-hop magazine show titled—get this!—Shake Ton Booty.

After the Marseille show, in her dressing room, where a bunch of red roses has been left by an admirer, Moses asks, "Whatever happened to the good old days when jazz was fun?

"Look, I've always been a soul, R'n'B singer. Never in my wildest dreams or my craziest thoughts, did I imagine I would end up doing jazz and blues, even though I'm a big blues fan, because that's what I was drawn to when I was little. I mean jazz was cool but give me a dirty blues and I was really happy. I was an Etta James, Esther Phillips chick. I love rough, feisty girls. Betty Davis, Millie Jackson, Carleen Anderson—those were the singers that I got really attached to. I liked rowdy, loud-mouthed women. I mean I like jazz too but vocal jazz right now is all so low key. I don't know how it got that way. Ella wasn't low key, Sarah wasn't low key, Billie wasn't low key."

On her MySpace page Moses says bravely, "I'm going all the way." She certainly has what it takes to do just that. So how would she feel about touring the US? Here real life kicks in. "I don't know. I've always been scared of the States. I've always thought I didn't have enough talent. And I feel split. I feel at home in France, though I also feel at home in the US when I'm there. But the biggest problem with the States is that I have my job at MTV to consider. Hell, it's a fun job and I don't want to have to give it up."

If she doesn't take her Dinah Washington show to America, one person who will be extremely disappointed is Marion Hudspeth, aged 86, who lives in Las Vegas. She is Moses' maternal grandmother and her greatest fan. "She called me up the other day and said, 'Hey China, I'm groovin' to your record.' Then she started dancing round the living room."

No doubt Mrs Hudspeth felt much as her granddaughter did after the Marseille gig. Moses' parting shot as she left to grab a bite to eat was: "Hey, I'm happy! How disgusting is that?"

Selected discography

This One's For Dinah (Blue Note 2009)

Good Lovin' (Virgin 2004)

On tourne en rond (Source 2000)

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