(Ronnie Scott’s, March 14th 2011, Review by Frank Griffith)
Vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater‘s early career included recordings with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie, and a Tony award for her role on Broadway in “The Wiz”. She then became a long term resident of Paris, until just a few years ago. During this period she recorded several CDs including a particularly noteworthy one celebrating the musaic and lyrics of jazz giant, Horace Silver.
She opened her five night stint at Ronnie Scott’s in front of a packed house, singing distinctive and unique interpretations of the songs of Billie Holiday, all adeptly arranged by pianist and musical director, Edsel Gomez, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and currently reside in New York. The quintet included the illustrious saxophonist/flautist Craig Handy. The album featuring these arrangements by Edsel Gomez, “Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee,” (EmArcy) won the 2011 Grammy for Best Vocal Album.
Ms Bridgewater’s show combines a healthy amount of chat with the audience, saucy banter with her band members, and brilliant and matchless personal takes of the great Lady Day songbook. Newcomer to the band, British drummer Shaney Forbes, was the main recipient (not that any of the other four were spared, mind) of many of her saucy asides and declarations. Making note of his youth (26 years old) she warned him of how much that he was going to learn during the week, etc. Her nudges and winks would have been a great cue for the song “Teach Me tonight ” – a shame it wasn’t part of Billie’s repertoire.
Bridgewater managed to strike the perfect balance between drawing the focus in on her singing and giving instrumental soloists the space and the room to make a real contribution to the song. Generally speaking each song had just one soloist (albeit quite extended in some cases). So the jazz punters could get their “fix,” but she also alllowed for the limelight to return quickly back to her artistry and command. She is a remarkable, world class purveyor of this classic material, and gets this aspect of performance absolutely right every time
Some particular highlights included her reading of “Lover Man” which was given a jazz waltz and medium 4/4 swing treatment. Unlike most traditional torch song ballads Lover Man does work in a variety of tempos and grooves.
“Fine and Mellow” closed the first set and featured the blistering, bluesy and guttural “Texas Tenor” (he’s from California, actually) of Craig Handy. His extended foray into this idiom explored a Billy Harper-like rustic-ness full of honks, squeals and high notes never to have been heard either (by man, at least). His control of the tenor with spectacular ease was offset by his complete stillness and relaxed look about him. Players like Handy with a lot to say have no need for physical histrionics.
A number which – as far as I could tell – was called “My mother’s son-in-law,” and has no obvious connection with Billie Holiday, featured fine virtuoso bassist, Kenny Davis.
To wind up, the strongest and most poignant material of the night were her readings of two classic Billie ballad compostions-“Don’t Explain” and “Good Morning Heartache”. Gently paced and measured, these were taken at proper “singer’s ballad” tempo, allowing this world class chanteuse all the time that she needed to deliver the message. Giving further credence to her power as performer, not a sound could be heard from the audience.
To quote a song title from one of Dee Dee Bridgewater’s first recordings, her “Suite For Pops” with Thad Jones: “A good time was had by all”.