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Dee Dee Bridgewater Brings Lady Day to Dusseldorf

Phillip Woolever By

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Dee Dee Bridgewater
Tonhalle
Dusseldorf, Germany
March 2, 2010

Dee Dee Bridgewater and a stellar supporting band delivered a scintillating one-hour and forty-minute set that provided pitch perfect illustration, worthwhile reinterpretations, and a relevant history lesson.

The fans were primed for the course. It was the type of concert for which most patrons arrived sufficiently early to partake of the grape and make it a party. The hall Bridgewater charmed is probably better for most jazz shows than its attached, more cavernous, alternative venue. Someone must have made a conscious decision to leave all the lights on. After a brief adjustment period, the show had a more intimate "session"-type feel than most spotlighted affairs.

Instrumental backup was of the highest order from the first note to the last. Bridgewater's old friend James Carter led the way on sax and other interspersed horns, with Ira Coleman on bass, Gregory Hutchinson on drums and arranger Edsel Gomez on piano. Besides musical instruments, the crew played up personalities that reinforced Bridgewater's strongly theatrical stage presence. Carter got six solos and made the most of them, a show in itself.

Most of the concert covered sacred ground from the featured artist's recording: Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie with Love from Dee Dee (Decca 2010). From fiery scat scales to lighthearted, though surely rehearsed, moments like her personification of a trombone, Bridgewater sounded like she could ignite a crowd as readily as Louis Armstrong or Frank Sinatra.

"You've Changed" and "Fine and Mellow" proved she could sure handle Billie Holiday signature tunes , while Carter's enhancing, adventurous playing kept the show peaking. "Don't Explain" was another prime example of Bridgewater going after Holiday note for note. Although listeners with different personal aesthetics will differ about how well Bridgewater's voice and show would have stacked up next to Holiday in her prime, such comparisons are beside the point. It's enough that Mother Nature has blessed us with generation after generation of inspiring talent.

The band quickly announced it wasn't nostalgia night as they flexed their way into acid Afro beats and a killer update of "God Bless the Child." During an excellent "Lover Man" Bridgewater evinced some of Holiday's nuanced trademarks, but for the most part she was Dee Dee. That was fine with the audience of around four hundred as Bridgewater hypnotized them with eye contact. No less mesmerizing were her descending chords on a thrice-repeated finale.
"We're doing it my way because that's Billie and I'm Dee Dee," smiled Bridgewater as she staked out her personal territory. "When I heard this tune I wanted it nice and slow," added Bridgewater as she launched into a soulful, simmering stretch of "Treat Me Right."

A point of the occasion came when Bridgewater channeled Holiday with the dramatic and haunting "Strange Fruit."

"This lady showed her courage and how militant she was," mused Bridgewater. "We have to do that song. Its part of our American history that remains unresolved. I think the song is still very relevant."

On "Miss Brown to You" Hutchinson played forcefully with just one tom-tom, one kettle and a single snapping snare, while holding back on any show-off fills in the thematic format respecting the memory of the legendary artist. Gomez was a clear, cohesive guide on the sterling Steinway, while remaining a wide-ranging anchor and beacon during many multi-jammed romps. Whether catching a breath or admiring her squad, Bridgewater knew she had gathered top talent. She wisely sat back, smiled approvingly, and let them run. More than a few numbers burned for nearly ten minutes.

Bridgewater's well-honed banter ("I celebrate Octoberfest all by myself in my house in Las Vegas"), German punchlines, and offbeat sketches like an uproarious bass-register conversation during "Your Mother's Son-in-Law" with Cohen kept the audience happily rapt.

The set closed with "Good Morning Heartache," demonstrating the incredibly smooth and soft rapport between Bridgewater and Carter, especially in the telepathic musical conversations. The timeless standard "All of Me" capped things off with suitable tradition and twist. "Be blessed and remember every day," Bridgewater said before exiting for the evening. For now, she had made that course of action easy.

Bridgewater is amazing, the type of performer who makes you wonder if you've ever seen or heard a better singer. Her acting skills were apparent when she seemed to morph into Holiday both vocally and facially. The implications, or ironies, of performing a tribute to Holiday's legacy before a deeply appreciative, all white, German audience, while impossible not to notice, need not become barriers to appreciating a performance such as the one just witnessed.

What matters foremost is that pure piercing art was created by Holiday in the past and by her song-shifting soul mate Bridgewater tonight. The audience in Dusseldorf didn't get to see "the" original, but they definitely were privileged to see another original.

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