Dee Dee Bridgewater: Dee Dee on Billie

Esther Berlanga-Ryan By

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Dee Dee BridgewaterIt is almost inevitable for most people to think of Billie Holiday as a wounded human being who suffered, struggled and eased her pain with drugs and song lyrics on her way to self destruction in 1959. In her greatness, Billie was as devastating and as devastated as a summer with no water. And yet her magnetism, her very soul picking through her vocal chords and reaching out to the world, her goodness as a citizen of a world that couldn't seem to quite figure out whether to protect her or to incarcerate her, made her who she was: the voice jazz music will never be able to forget.

Holiday's ever-present, delicate inner balance, as a black woman with no civil rights but with a certainty within her heart that she was bigger than life, allowed her to sing the way she did. She lived in every song she ever recorded. Love teased, bullied and damaged her. She turned to music every time, and her voice was a map full of dirt roads and hidden places where she would find a quiet corner to rest her weary bones and cry herself to sleep. The world watched her fall to her knees over and over again, to then stare at her in awe every time she rose back up, a little more confident each time, but a little more hopeless, too. She had known it all— poverty, violence, rape, racism, prison, narcotics, loneliness, divorce—yet she still managed to become that Lady Day that Lester Young saw, and to hold on to her sense of humor, jazz and her love for life, to stay alive for as long as she did.

That is exactly what Dee Dee Bridgewater wanted to revisit in her new studio album, Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie with Love from Dee Dee (Decca, 2010)—the strength despite the horror, the smile despite the pain, the wit despite the silence. With a stellar group of musicians, ranging from Christian McBride on bass and Edsel Gomez on piano to James Carter on tenor sax, bass clarinet and alto flute, and Lewis Nash on drums, Bridgewater has now completed an involuntary circle of love that started years ago, when her ex-husband, Cecil Bridgewater, first suggested that she listen to the legendary Billie Holiday.

Needless to say, it is quite an experience to listen to this woman sing just about anything. One can't help but admire the versatility of her many talents, but when it comes to singing, Bridgewater always is at the top of a game that has spoiled her for years now, willing to take as much as possible from such a creative individual. Treating her voice as one of the instruments of the band, she has learned to blend with the music, to interact with it as if she were a magnificent horn played by an astonishingly skilled musician.

Her rendition of "Mother's Son-In-Law" is especially remarkable, accompanied by a stunning solo by Christian McBride on bass. The energy transforms with every note. Bridgewater's playful exquisiteness reaches the status of perfection and McBride's soliloquy turns into a breathtaking conversation with her voice. James Carter and his tenor saxophone interact with her on "Fine and Mellow" in a way that would have made Billie herself grin from ear to ear. In the meantime, Lewis Nash leaves no room for doubt: he is one fine drummer and a gift to anybody's soul. And pianist Edsel Gomez, also responsible for the arrangements, stands tall and proud, whispering to Bridgewater's heart in every song. What a fabulous team this is.

This might just be the best Dee Dee Bridgewater the world has ever heard.

All About Jazz : Why Billie Holiday now?

Dee Dee Bridgewater : Why Billie Holiday now? Why not?! I mean, yeah, why not, but for me "why now" is a good question. I was looking for a way to take a break without touring and still earn money last year, and I came up with this brainy idea of producing myself because, you know, I'm just a producing machine now that I've been producing my own albums [laughs]. Why not go to another area and produce myself theatrically? So I don't think very big, you know, but I was going to see if I could get the play Lady Day that I've done in Paris and in London— about Billie Holiday, where I portray Billie Holiday—which is basically a one-woman show with a quartet on stage. I was going to see if I could get the funding and put the play on Broadway or off-Broadway or somewhere else, so I auditioned the play this year, from January until August.

I was running around, meeting with the original theaters and talking to producers and all that kind of stuff, putting budgets together and finding out all the things that I'd need to do to produce it on Broadway and off-Broadway, and all of that. And I could not get the funding. So I decided, as part of this project that I wanted to do, [upon] what would be considered a kind of cast recording, where I would do music from the play, but more in the '50s style, more in the line of Billie and her recordings. And a second CD, [of] contemporary arrangements, being myself, which would be more of a celebration of Billie Holiday.

Dee Dee BridgewaterSo, trying to be ahead of the game, I said I should probably try and record this contemporary album. My pianist for five years, Edsel Gomez, got the arrangements done. I asked him to do the arrangements for this contemporary album and then also one more '50s style for the play. So I asked him to start off on the more contemporary style, and we kinda just went through the book of the play, and I said, "Oh, do the arrangements on this one first, and do this one, and this one..," so I ended up with a list of like 15 songs that I wanted him to get started with, that I thought would be good for the more contemporary versions of the songs that I wanted to do for the show. But, like I said, I never could get the play out, but I had been hoping I would be in rehearsal close to doing something by February of this year on stage somewhere, you know, or at least by April.

I was getting this album together to be a part of the whole project, so when the project didn't happen, Universal Records asked me if they could just put out the album I had recorded. I told them that I didn't have the artwork, and I was planning on taking my time and putting it out with the play, a double CD, and I really didn't think about it being an individual record. But Universal said they thought it could stand on its own, so here I am now. The release should be in February, instead of April.

AAJ: So it's almost like an accident of an album, a serendipity album.

DDB: It is serendipitous, it totally is. All of the musicians that are on the album—who are Edsel Gomez at the piano and arrangements, Christian McBride on bass, Lewis Nash on drums and James Carter on sax—they were all available to do this album the first ten days of June. The sound engineer that I have for this album is my sound guru, as I call him, Al Schmitt—very famous sound engineer that I'd done my first album with, and then more recently I had used him as a sound engineer in France. So he was only free the first two weeks of June, and he suggested a recording studio, which was Avatar, and the only days they had available were these four days in June. So I recorded the album. Everything was like...weird. Everybody was free, the studio was free. So I said, "Let's get to work, and hurry up on those arrangements!"

AAJ: That was absolutely meant to be.

DDB: Yeah [laughs]. It's how I make my life. If I want to do something, I need a sign, I need a clear sign that I'm supposed to do that thing. Otherwise, just like with this option for the play—it was just like all kinds of stuff happened, and I thought, "Well, maybe I'm not supposed to do the play." I let it go in August. And it was when I let it go that Universal International in London said, "Well, since you got that CD that you've done, what about releasing that?" And I was, like, "Ooookay," and I've been running ever since, to get it ready for the release date.

AAJ: Well, it's a gorgeous album. Sometimes when people record tributes, you never know what you're going to find, but it's gorgeous.

DDB: Oh, thank you. It's a celebration of Billie, which is something people don't usually do when they do a tribute to Billie Holiday. You know, it's kind of predictable, and very typical—the tragic side of her. And not very many people know that she was a funny woman, and she was just one of the fellows when she was out on the road, and she could crack a joke just like the rest of them, and could talk like a sailor, you know? And then she would be this gorgeous, mysterious creature on stage. And it is almost like she had a double identity. When I researched for the play, it's when I discovered all of that information. So I decided, just like with most of the things I do, that I wanted to do a different take on it, especially if it's something other people have done, or a similar idea, even though it might be different music. I try and bring out some other quality to that project that hasn't been explored by others in some of the projects. So with this one, I said, "Well, let me make it a celebration."

Because it was a celebration for me, in many levels. It was a celebration because of the musicians that I had; working again with Al Schmitt; a celebration because this was really going to be a live album, because I had decided that I had to be in the studio with these gentlemen, I had to. Because in order for us to connect, I had to sing, so it was the whole unit—so we had interaction and reaction. All the songs in the album are a first or second take; there's maybe one, I think, that is a third take. No vocal over-dubbed, nothing! I had to correct two words on one song, because I sang the wrong words [laughs]. So it's really a live album, and I think that makes it stand out. We recorded that album in three days, between the 1st and 5th of June. We did four songs a day. And it was the most intense experience I've had in a long time, and certainly my most intense short-term recording experience. It was something else. And then I had all these guys that I love. These are my babies, I love these men! I love the musicianship, and you know, there were no egos.

Dee Dee BridgewaterEverybody came ready to celebrate Billie, and we were all very happy to finally have the opportunity to work together. So it was just a wonderful thing. And I didn't know, for example, that Christian and Lewis Nash are kind of like a recording duo— they've done 70 albums together. Mine makes 71, I guess. And I had done a project with Lewis on February last year, a tribute to Max Roach, that had been commissioned by the Symphony Hall of Chicago. And it was incredible, and from that experience, we kind of bonded musically. We rehearsed to get a feel of each other for that experience, but it ended up being something we improvised. But what we did was incredible, oh my gosh! So I asked him if he'd be interested in recording with me at some point in time, and he said, "Heck yes, Dee Dee!" So I called.

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