The Return of Dee Bell

After a strong debut, the North Bay jazz vocalist dropped off the scene some thirty years ago. Now she's back — with Brazilian pianist Marcos Silva.

With her sensuously husky voice and relaxed behind-the-beat phrasing, North Bay jazz vocalist Dee Bell emerged suddenly on the national scene some three decades ago with Let There Be Love, which was released on the Concord Jazz label. Mentored by veteran Bay Area guitarist Eddie Duran and championed by tenor sax legend Stan Getz, who both played on her impressive 1983 debut album, Bell was hailed by critic Leonard Feather for having a “haunting, jazz-infected sound” with “flawless” diction and phrasing — a reputation she enhanced with her second album, 1985’s One By One (which was also released by Concord). And then almost as quickly as she appeared, Bell seemed to drop off the scene.

Now she’s back, and she’s got another musical heavyweight in her corner, Brazilian pianist Marcos Silva. Their collaboration, Silva • Bell • Elation — which they’ll celebrate the release of at Yoshi’s on Tuesday — is a beautiful mix of American Songbook interpretations and singer-songwriter material. Throughout, Bell sounds as cool as ever.

Motherhood curtailed Bell’s performance itinerary after her initial success, and she stayed under the radar for years without a new album to push her back in the spotlight. “When I was raising my son, it was too much to do a gig that was going to keep me out until midnight,” Bell said from her home in Mill Valley. “Every summer I’d play some festivals and sing with pianist Luke Gillespie in Indiana where I grew up. I usually had a little gig in Mill Valley at Howard Johnson’s. There were places to hear me, but you had to be paying attention.”

Bell’s longest-running musical partnership was with the persuasively swinging pianist Al Plank, a connection she sought to document in 1990 on the album Sagacious Grace with tenor sax great Houston Person and a top-shelf Bay Area rhythm section. After she invested her family’s savings on the session, an engineering gaffe made the project unreleasable, at least until some two decades later when studio wizards Bud Spangler and Dan Feiszli employed state-of-the-art technology to repair the sonic flaws. Bell finally put the album out in 2011 (Plank died in 2003). A few months later she happened to connect with Silva at a Freight & Salvage concert celebrating Concord Records’ Merrilee Trost, and Bell asked him to accompany her for the album’s release concert.

“We did the show as a tribute to Al Plank,” Bell said. “I was so joyous over finally meeting someone who understood musically what I wanted to hear, I decided to do a new album.”

Bell hadn’t sung much Brazilian music before, and Elation isn’t really a Brazilian jazz or bossa nova session (though she interprets several Brazilian standards, including Toninho Horta’s “Beijo Partido” and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Dreamer”). Instead, they meet each other halfway, with Silva’s lithe rhythmic feel and rarefied melodic sensibility and Bell’s relaxed jazz phrasing combining an eclectic array of material, including Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon,” Joni Mitchell’s “Night in the City,” Abbey Lincoln’s “The World Is Falling Down,” and The Beatles’ “I Will.”

“It’s not Brazilian,” Silva said. “It’s not jazz. It’s just music.”

One of the Bay Area’s underground creative talents, Silva is renowned among his peers as an arranger, composer, producer, and accompanist. The Rio de Janeiro native had already earned his stripes working with the great Brazilian jazz vocalist Leny Andrade when he moved to the Bay Area in 1984, where he found a community of musicians eager to study with an artist as steeped in jazz as in contemporary Brazilian styles. Silva spent years touring the world as music director for pioneering Brazilian percussionist Airto and his wife, vocalist Flora Purim, a gig he gave up for good in 2008 to concentrate on teaching at the Jazzschool.

Over the years he’s mentored numerous artists who have devoted themselves to Brazilian music, such as vocalist Sandy Cressman, reed expert Harvey Wainapel, saxophonist/flautist Mary Fettig and her husband, drummer Phil Thompson. For the project with Bell, he brought in a superlative team of players, including guitarist Barry Finnerty and the supple rhythm section tandem of drummer Phil Thompson and bassist Scott Thompson (no relation). Bell gets the credit for reaching out to steel pan master Andy Narell, who adds a lustrous sheen to “I’ve Got the World on a String” and “Nature Boy.”

“I put people playing the right thing at the right place,” said Silva, who also leads his own band, Intersection. “[Bell] loves Brazilian music though she doesn’t know it well. We had to figure it out rhythmically. After that we could do anything, like play the Beatles with that soft groove. I thought this is interesting. It’s different than anything I had heard before.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that drummer Phil Thompson and bassist Scott Thompson are father and son. In fact, they are not related. This version has been corrected.

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