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Interview: China Moses - Singer

ASK China Moses what Edinburgh audiences can expect when the Paris-based singer and cover girl for the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival programme makes her first visit to Scotland this month, and she sounds faintly bemused: "I don't know – just plain old good musicianship, I guess, and a lot of Dinah Washington stories."

• China Moses says she would never have met Raphael without singing with Alarash. Picture: Complimentary

She's referring to her current album with pianist Raphael Lemonnier, This One's for Dinah, a tribute to the legendary "Queen of the Blues".

The musicianship – Moses and Lemonnier are accompanied by regular sidemen Fabien Marcoz on double bass and Jean-Pierre Derouard on drums – should be guaranteed. Purists can rest assured, however, that Moses, who has branched out from soul music and MTV presenting to make an impressive debut as a jazz singer, won't be accompanied by the Paris heavy metal band Alarash, with whom she also hones her fiery performances.

One might be inclined to expect just about anything from someone with such a marvellously ecumenical-sounding name as China Moses, especially as she's the daughter of jazz diva Dee Dee Bridgewater. "I think it's pretty cool now," she says of the moniker, "although I didn't when I was little."

At 32, Moses can holler with the best of them – just listen to Dinah Blues on that eponymous album, but the metal connection? "I have this rock band on the side, called Alarash – I guess you can call it metal soul," she says, chatting amiably on the phone from Germany, where she has been touring.

"I still do all the stuff I did before I did jazz. I've always been a big rock fan, but if I hadn't been in that rock band I wouldn't have met Raphael, because it was with Alarash that I learned I had a lot of vocal power. I actually met Raphael when I was doing background vocals for Camille (the award-winning Parisian singer-songwriter]. But Camille's background vocals are kind of intricate, and I wouldn't have dared do background singing for her if it hadn't been for the rock band. So let's just say that rock saved my life," she laughs.

The Dinah Washington connection goes way back. The family story is that Dee Dee Bridgewater was taken, as a baby, by her mother to see Washington backstage. The jazz and blues queen, who succumbed to a fatal dose of sleeping pills and alcohol in 1963, aged just 39, declared that the infant would become a singer and, lo, it came to pass. At least that's the story, says Moses. There's no further family connection, except that when she was a child Moses discovered Washington's records at her grandmother's home, although the old lady disapproved of her ten-year-old granddaughter listening to the likes of I'm Drinking Again and other anthems of the louche life. Moses, however, was smitten.

The daughter of Bridgewater's marriage to the late Gilbert Moses, the director responsible for the influential TV drama series Roots, among other things, she grew up steeped in music and theatre. Her mother, a Grammy Award-winner twice over, was nominated for a Laurence Olivier award for her role as another ill-starred jazz heroine, Billie Holiday, in the musical Lady Day. Moses confirms that her mother found it disturbingly difficult to regain her own voice again following that show.

Clearly, however, Moses has had no trouble in preserving hers during the Dinah project, in which she gives powerful voice to numbers as diverse as the bounce-along blues of Fine Fine Daddy and Noel Coward's slinky Mad About the Boy, both of which were Washington standards. "It's not the same thing," she says. "My Mom was playing Billie Holiday, so she had to get as close as possible to her and mimic her and she did an amazing job, whereas our tribute was just paying homage to Dinah.

"I didn't want to – and can't – imitate Dinah Washington. Her tessitura (vocal range] is much different to mine, she had a deeper voice, I don't even have the same kind of vibrato. Dinah is a project that makes people happy, and they'll come out knowing more about Dinah Washington after the show, so I'm satisfied about that."

Washington had a rough ride. "She had a sad, happy, intense, amazing life, as many woman jazz singers did at that time, because not only do you have the colour thing, because you're in the middle of segregation, you also have the woman aspect. Doing both was a double whammy, and I guess you had to be quite, well, eccentric, at that time, to be 15 and look at your mother, who'd played in the church her whole life, and be like, 'I want to be an entertainer. I want to go do the devil's music.' " She chuckles silkily. "She must have had some kind of guts."

Ask how much of an influence her own mother has been on her, and she laughs again: "Well, she's my Mom. I have a lot of her voice, and I know that I look like her more and more as I get older, which isn't a bad thing because I think my Mom is pretty hot. She's been a humongous influence on me and I wouldn't be doing music professionally if it wasn't for her support. She's inspired me in so many ways – even on just the importance of being your own producer and knowing the business aspects."

While her mother lives in the US, Moses remains in Paris, but the pair occasionally meet up to share a stage for what, by all accounts, are memorable shows. Surrounded by everything from the chanson of Georges Brassens and Lo Ferr to the Cameroonian singer Sandra Nkak, and of course, that heavy metal business, she reckons French jazz favours a more old-fashioned sound: "For the Dinah project we got musicians with that 1950s, club jazz sound. If it we had done it with American musicians, it really wouldn't have sounded the same," she says.

However, Edinburgh jazz fans have plenty of opportunity to judge la difference for themselves as this year's festival programme features a "snapshot", of French jazz today in various stylistic guises, from the youthfully eclectic l'Orchestre National de Jazz performing their own take on the Billie Holiday songbook to the dynamic blast of saxophonist Emile Parisien's quartet.

Other French guests can be found in creative collaboration with their hosts – such as the widely feted young French pianist Baptiste Trotignon and his trio joining Scots saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski, while another pianist, Francis Le Bras, teams up with German saxophonist Daniel Erdmann to share a bill with two other sax players, Edinburgh's Phil Bancroft and Boston's Jorrit Dijkstra.

The centenary of Europe's first international jazz star, guitar genius Django Reinhardt – and, yes, he was a Belgian-born gypsy but it was in Paris that he honed that unique Hot Club sound with violinist Stephane Grappelli – prompts the return of the fiery guitar ensemble Les Doigts de l'Homme, while other Django-esque performers include the celebrated gypsy guitarist Fapy Lafertin teaming up with Edinburgh's Swing 2010 – this year celebrating their 30th birthday, while Scots virtuoso Martin Taylor pays his own tribute to the maestro with his Spirit of Django band.

And as part of a series of Scotsman Talks throughout the festival, guitarist John Russell; will host a conversation with Taylor, Lafertin and Jazz Journal editor Mark Gilbert on What Makes Django Special, while the Filmhouse has a special screening of Louis Malle's controversial film, Lacombe Lucien, with a fine score by Reinhardt, as well as some rare footage of the guitarist in full, Gauloise-infused swing.

• China Moses plays The Hub, Edinburgh on 31 July. The Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival runs from 30 July until 8 August. For more information and to book tickets, visit www.edinburghjazzfestival.com or telephone 0131-473 2000

 
 
 

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