Dee Dee Bridgewater: Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie with Love from Dee Dee
A brilliant jazz singer crafts a manic tribute to a jazz vocal hero. A bit much.
Dee Dee Bridgewater is a full-service jazz singer, She has a powerful voice and the flexibility and musical chops to sing with the band, But she also has old-school personality, imbuing her lyrics with color, shading, and interpretation, Her last recording, 2007's Red Earth, was one of the best jazz records of the last five years: an innovative blend of jazz and Mali-an music that allowed her pianist Edsel Gomez to shine brilliantly, On Red Earth, Bridgewater's high-octane voice was matched by such colorful musicianship, and she chose to sing with a careful focus.
This new release, a tribute to Billie Holiday, again features Gomez, This time the small band includes the saxophone virtuoso James Carter, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Lewis Nash, But while this music is as dazzling and complex as her Red Earth accompaniment, Bridgewater here chooses to amp up her singing to compete, She is stunning in her technique and verve, but this side of Bridgewater can also be mannered and baroque, At nearly every turn here, the singer bends, tweaks, and juices her voice.
Impressive, no doubt, But.
The band's version of the timeless "All of Me" races out of the gate with Carter playing a tricky figure on soprano sax and the trio swinging like mad, Bridgewater dives in as if she can't wait to get wet, and sure enough she does, She shakes notes, syncopates, and fiddle-dee-dees with her tone to the point where the song itself just falls away, After Carter's twisty-turny solo, Bridgewater scats the saxophonist's final phrase and takes off on her own bweeeee-by-yaaaaaah solo, It's fairly exhausting just to listen to it.
So, here is the real dilemma: this is a tribute to Billie Holiday, Billie Holiday's artistry was the very opposite of over-juiced scatting and high-octane theatrics, Does a tribute to Holiday have to adopt Holiday's subtlety and nuance? Perhaps not, But.
When Bridgewater assays "Lover Man", the last thing you expect is an affected, "sassy" performance, It swings seriously in a skipping 6/8, and Carter has invented a brilliant introductory line, but the power of the words just about goes up in smoke, "Miss Brown to You" suffers less, coming across more jaunty than excessive, perhaps, and Nash's drum solo is keen, but the return of the vocal is too much—all repeated notes and rhythm-and-blues bashing where it ought to be coy or playful or cute, The "Fine and Mellow" here is shouted and squeezed, "He wears high-draped pants, stripes are really yeah-lllllow" could not be more oversung.
What makes this so hard to listen to is the fact that you know Bridgewater is a legitimately great jazz singer who knows perfectly well how to be subtle, The version of "Good Morning Heartache" is nicely cooed with bass clarinet colorings and some new harmonies. "Don't Explain" uses some of the singer's affections with control and power, There is outstanding music here, and the band is diamond-tight from start to finish, But the amount of show-offy filigree is considerable.
It's probably fair to say that your own reactions to these performances might vary, Dee Dee Bridgewater has earned the right to sing "God Bless the Child" like a soul singer, and you may be astonished by it, For me, most of Eleanora Fagan is wildly indulgent, "God Bless" starts soulful and then spins out of control. Bridgewater yelps away during the saxophone solo, and then she doubles her intensity as the melody returns, It is just too much, Tooooooooooo much, Too mu-uu-uuu-uuuuch!
This, alas, is one of the pitfalls of jazz singing, What, after all, makes it "jazz"? Dee Dee Bridgewater heads out on a limb here, never playing it safe, She invests this music with some risk and plenty of vibrant attack, I suspect that Eleanora Fagan (nee Miss Holiday) would find this tribute overwrought, Billie, bless her, could swing a song from the ground up without much fanfare, But fanfare can be fun, and on this new release Bridgewater brings it, Brace yourself.