Since I first tracked down Dee Dee Bridgewater's superb 1974 Afro Blue (Trio) debut, I've always hoped the gifted singer would one day return to the spiritual jazz path she began with that recording. Since then she's found enormous success in stage musicals, and has recorded tributes to the music of Horace Silver, Ella Fitzgerald, Kurt Weill and the French chanson tradition. But finally, 33 years later, Bridgewater followed the natural trajectory of Afro Blue to Mali, where she hooked up with some of West Africa's finest singers and players -- including Oumou Sangare, Toumani Diabaté, Cheick Tidiane Seck and Mamani Keíta -- for a surprisingly seamless cross-cultural throwdown. The inspired Bridgewater opens up and lets loose improvisationally as she's rarely been heard to do before, showing that she can match Mali's masters note for note, even on their own funky traditional getdowns. You can hear genuine connections being made here, which puts Red Earth way beyond most similar fusionary experiments.