To Billie With Love
Dee Dee Bridgewater channels Billie Holiday in “To Billie With Love”
Photo by Mark Higashino
Dee Dee Bridgewater Quintet
Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
Jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater let the spirit of Billie Holiday float in during her raucous, sold-out tribute concert “To Billie With Love: A Celebration Tribute of Lady Day” at the Annenberg Center. The show was a make-up appearance for a Feb. 11 date that was snowed out. Holiday’s fans were back in force.
Bridgewater, très élégante in an iridescent pinkish wrap over a black ensemble, announced that she refuses to look at Holiday as a tragic figure. Her life as a woman and an artist was cause for celebration. With Craig Handy on saxes and flute, Edsel Gomez on piano, Ira Coleman on one meaty bass, and Cuban drummer Ignacio Berroa, Bridgewater did much more than cover well-trod Holiday territory, melding her instinctively perfect phrasing with the jazz giant who influenced everybody.
Gomez’s dynamic arrangements paid tribute by representing all aspects of her career that avoided nostalgia. Instead the band opened these songs up to more blues, more Afro-Caribbean and trans-era riffs. Bridgewater vocally just opened up all of the songs to valid and oftentimes joyous interpretation. On early Holiday novelty tunes like “Miss Brown to You” and “My Mother’s Son-in-Law,” she vamped; on Holiday’s signatures, “Lover Man” and “Don’t Explain,” she melded Holiday’s wily phrasing into her own distillations.
Bridgewater kept driving deeper for this to become a real jam, not just a concert set, and her band responded. As she flirted with the men in the band, she flirted with the lyrics and Holiday styles. At one point, Bridgewater asked the audience directly if they were having a good time.
Her artistry completely impressive, her between-song shtick bordering on tiresome, but the audience was actually with her every step of the way. She wanted to bust through the reverence. She did that with “Fine and Mellow,” played like a hothouse blues, and Bridgewater kept it a honey, husky and rowdy.
Gomez punctuated with dense virtuosic keyboard runs on several numbers and his lag tempo polyrhythm kept simmering. Handy is alternately blue fire and blistering progressive horn lines that never obliterate the melody.
On the indelible classic “Strange Fruit,” Bridgewater illuminates the song in different musical ways. She wisely invokes Holiday sparingly, fusing the song’s historic emotional and artistic importance. There are moments in this and other signature Holiday tunes where Bridgewater is transcendent.