Dee Dee Bridgewater shines new light on jazz icon

Fri Jan 8, 2010 8:11pm EST
 
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By Gail Mitchell

LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - No one can accuse Dee Dee Bridgewater of playing it safe. The Grammy Award-winning vocalist fused jazz with the colorful rhythms of West Africa's Republic of Mali on the 2007 multicultural outing "Red Earth: A Malian Journey." The carryover from that creatively enriching experience fuels Bridgewater's latest project: "Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee."

Eleanora Fagan is the birth name of Billie Holiday, the pioneering -- and troubled -- jazz singer-songwriter whose life was cut short at the age of 44. Holiday forged an indelible mark by way of such classics as "God Bless the Child," "Don't Explain," "Lover Man" and "Lady Sings the Blues."

Those songs plus eight more, including the racism-themed "Strange Fruit," round out Bridgewater's February 2 release from DDB Records/Emarcy (Universal). But while "Eleanora Fagan" celebrates Holiday's legacy, the set is more than the average tribute album. New arrangements were written for all 12 songs by Bridgewater's longtime bandmate, pianist Edsel Gomez.

"I was just so changed after 'Red Earth,'" Bridgewater says. "What I learned from that experience is that jazz and blues are extensions of Malian music. So when I came back to doing standards, I came back with this whole new feeling. And his arrangements allowed a lot of freedom inside."

Right from the swinging start of opener "Lady Sings the Blues," Bridgewater zeroes in on the modern, joyful approach she wanted to bring to Holiday's songs. Melding blues with African polyrhythms, "Blues" segues into a soulful, nuanced "Good Morning Heartache." Reminiscent of the way Holiday improvised with her band, Bridgewater tunefully connects with her self-described "dream band" on the sassy "Lover Man" and the haunting "You've Changed."

'A LOT OF LOVE'

Recorded in three days, the Bridgewater-produced album also features the artistry of reeds player James Carter, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Lewis Nash. Behind the set's crystal sound is legendary producer/engineer Al Schmitt.

"It was magical," Bridgewater recalls. "The grooves were so in the pocket. Everybody took their part and made it their own; my intensity came out of what I was hearing from them. There was a lot of love being poured into each song."   Continued...