Making it sing

Dee Dee does Billie, plus John Stein & Ron Gill
By JON GARELICK  |  March 25, 2010

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LOUD AND PROUD: Bridgewater is more interested in Holiday’s fighting real-world spirit than in her legendary persona.

If you come to Dee Dee Bridgewater’s new Billie Holiday tribute disc — or to her two Holiday shows at the Paramount Theatre this weekend — expecting a reverent impersonation, you could be in for a shock. Bridgewater has transformed the music and persona of the jazz icon. Holiday is known for the reserve of her musical delivery — hanging behind the beat in the swing rhythms she learned from Louis Armstrong, singing in a nearly vibratoless blue-smoke muted-trumpet purr that didn’t extend much beyond an octave, her understatement informing both comedy and tragedy with sharp irony. Even her anthemic lament “Strange Fruit” is delivered more in matter-of-fact outraged wonder than as an outpouring of grief.

But Eleanora Fagan (1915–1959): To Billie with Love from Dee Dee Bridgewater (DDB/EmArcy) is a whole other animal. Bridgewater is a multi-octave pyrotechnical wizard with a broad vibrato and an aggressive attack. The Holiday–Herbie Nichols tune “Lady Sings the Blues” opens the album in a hard-charging Africanized 6/8. “Fine and Mellow” is a growling bar-room blues; “God Bless the Child” is deep-church gospel. “Strange Fruit” is wrung for every last drop of pathos, the singer sounding near tears, gasping out the last notes on an empty breath. Sharing the front line is the equally aggressive James Carter, who growls along with her on tenor sax and soprano (as well as taking a turn on flute), in what’s a far cry from the laid-back cool of Holiday’s saxophonist of choice, Lester Young.

But in their own way, the performances on the album (with arrangements by pianist Edsel Gomez) are truer to Holiday’s full-blooded spirit than to the legend. Bridgewater has said that she wants the album to be “more modern, and a celebration, not a recording that goes dark and sullen and maudlin.” This Holiday is a corrective to the sad victim encased in amber — it’s more like the, yes, tragic but also profane and funny Holiday recalled by her contemporaries in Donald Clark’s classic biography Wishing on the Moon. Even the title of the album — leading with Holiday’s birth name — is a nod to the real Billie. “I want people to know she’s a human being,” Bridgewater tells me on the phone from her home in Henderson, Nevada.

To Billie with Love in fact emerged from Bridgewater’s theatrical portrayal in Stephen Stahl’s Lady Day, an ’80s hit in Paris and London for which Bridgewater (a Tony winner as Glinda the Good Witch in the original Broadway cast of The Wiz) was nominated for an Olivier Award. For that production, Bridgewater immersed herself in late-period boozy Holiday, adopting Billie’s singing style. “I felt possessed in a lot of ways. Every day when I would get ready to go on stage, she would just take over. I could feel her come into my body. She’s still with me. I could talk to you like her right now.” And she gives me a dead-on spooky take of Holiday’s speaking voice and laughs.

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