April 1st, 2010
Artist: Dee Dee Bridgewater
Label: DDB Records/EmArcy (Universal)
Catalog No.: 2724155
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: March 2, 2010
The latest musical tribute to jazz icon Billie Holiday is Dee Dee Bridgewater’s Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee. I must admit, I was not very excited to see another tribute to Holiday; however, I am happily surprised to say I was impressed with Ms. Bridgewater’s adaptation.
I was introduced to jazz at the age of 13 and began to seek out jazz instrumentalists, since my novice self only identified jazz with instrumentalists. It wasn’t until I saw the film Lady Sings the Blues that I realized jazz singers were an integral and necessary segment of jazz. I then sought out Billie Holiday’s massive catalog so I could hear the real thing, but soon learned that I had been duped. Though Diana Ross rightly deserved an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Holiday, I discovered that the story line was more fiction than fact, and vocally Ross is not in the same ball park as Holiday.
I also learned why Holiday is loved by many, hence the numerous tributes that have included covers of her work: Chet Baker (1965), Tony Bennett (1997), Rosemary Clooney (1978), Carmen McRae (1962) and Miki Howard (1994). All of these artists expressed their adoration and respect musically, while a well -received and reviewed literary homage is the book If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery by Farah Jasmine Griffin.
The new offering by Dee Dee Bridgewater is not her first tribute album to a jazz icon—she won a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal performance for Dear Ella in 1998. But how do you rightly do justice by covering an icon like Billie Holiday? One, you don’t try to imitate her. Two, bring new life to the music, and that is what Bridgewater has accomplished. She states, “This album is my way of paying my respect to a vocalist who made it possible for singers like me to carve out a career for ourselves. I wanted Eleanora Fagan to be something different; more modern and a celebration, not a [recording] that goes dark and sullen and maudlin. I wanted the album to be joyful.” Bridgewater’s approach speaks volumes as to why this tribute works. Her intentions were to celebrate and not mimic Holiday, and to use her own talent to create something that is fresh , modern and new.
Using various genres for inspiration, pianist Edsel Gomez (Bridgewater’s longtime band mate) wrote new arrangements for the 12 songs on the album. Included is an African polyrhythmic-charged interpretation of “Lady Sings the Blues,” re-harmonized versions of “All Of Me” and the gospel-tinged “God Bless the Child,” and a very well-scatted version of “All of Me.” Bridgewater sings distinctly in songs such as “Good Morning Heartache,” “Lover Man,” and “Fine and Mellow,” with an allure and appeal that is both sexy and beguiling. Her ability to generate such emotion and remain true to her musical self is much more difficult than she lets on, demonstrating her talent to truly make these tunes her own.
Perhaps the true testament to Bridgewater’s panache is her rendition of the poignant and heartbreaking “Strange Fruit,” which is wisely positioned as the finale. Bridgewater can be heard choking up on this recording. She conveys a natural, authentic voice to perhaps one of the most powerful and compelling songs ever recorded—one that paints a vivid picture of the revolting and repulsive ideology of racism.
Following is an interview (in French) and clips from her current “To Billie With Love” tour (courtesy of GoBuzz TV):
Bridgewater assembled an all-star band for the recording sessions—reeds player James Carter, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Lewis Nash. Each musician’s personality is allowed to shine in Gomez’s purposeful arrangements. Though I would insist that the jazz novice first listen to Ms. Holiday, rather than the film Lady Sings the Blues or tribute albums, I can honestly recommend Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959) as a excellent example of how a tribute album should be done.
Reviewed by June Evans
Review Genre(s): Jazz