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.”
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.”
Bridgewater’s love affair with Holiday dates back to 1970, when she first heard one of the late singer’s albums. But it wasn’t until Bridgewater read the singer’s ghostwritten autobiography (“Lady Sings the Blues”) that “I also saw a lot of her in me; that similar unsettling things had happened in my life.” Fast-forward to 1986: After a gig in Paris, Bridgewater was offered the chance to star in a one-woman musical, “Lady Day,” based on the book. Written and directed by Stephen Stahl, the play ran in Paris (1986) and London (1987), where it earned Bridgewater a Laurence Olivier Award nomination for best actress.
After recording subsequent albums re-envisioning such music icons as Horace Silver (1995’s “Love and Peace: A Tribute to Horace Silver”), Ella Fitzgerald (1997’s Grammy-winning “Dear Ella”) and Kurt Weill (2002’s “This Is New”), Bridgewater mounted an effort to bring “Lady Day” to Broadway. That venture failed, but the planned accompanying album moved forward.
Prepping now for a concert run that kicks off January 14 at the Panama Jazz Festival, Bridgewater is set to perform in the United States (including shows in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.) and overseas (including Switzerland, France, Belgium and Denmark). Along the way, she hopes to leave audiences with a renewed sense of Holiday’s legacy while engaging a new generation of fans.
“I want people to come away feeling so good that it piques their curiosity to learn more about the real Billie Holiday ... the joy, the love, her courage and power as a songwriter; not just the dark, tragic parts of her life. Billie deserves to have her music heard in another light.”