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Starting Over with Dee Dee Bridgewater

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Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band--that was my musical training. Everything I'm doing; you can trace it all back to my days with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis.
In jazz, as in life, the most interesting path between two points is rarely a straight line. Consider the acclaimed jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater For much of the 1990s, Bridgewater engaged in what was arguably the decade's most dynamic, comprehensive and witty exploration of the idea of the human voice as an instrument. Along the way, she packed clubs and concert halls, released several commercially successful CDs, and became a fixture at the Grammy awards and in jazz polls. By decade's end, the veteran singer had firmly established herself as one of the finest living proponents of traditional jazz singing. There was only one problem, says Bridgewater, "I was bored."

The fire that had driven much of Bridgewater's best work over the previous fifteen years had cooled. "I just thought I would go crazy if I had to do the material I was doing another time," explains the singer. "I was just losing it. I just wasn't finding any stimulation, and so to challenge myself I was taking more and more extended scat choruses. The song and the lyrics were just an excuse to get me off into improvising with the musicians. People began to say, 'Can you just sing the song, please? Just sing the song.'"

Bridgewater, who had recently relocated from France back to the United States, needed a new challenge, and she found it in the most surprising place—a Polish theatrical festival. In March of 2000, Bridgewater was invited to Poland to perform at a concert honoring the music of the German composer Kurt Weill. "I was one of five singers, and the other four were all Polish women," recalls the singer. "I was just blown away by the melodies of these songs and the emotion I could feel even though these women were singing in Polish or German. I had not heard most of these songs. The only songs I had heard were 'September Song' and the songs that I did, 'Speak Low' and 'Mack the Knife.' I was just amazed that even though the musical accompaniment would change from rock to opera or punk rock to cabaret to pop to jazz/pop and then to jazz, these melodies just jumped out at you, and they lingered. They were kind of haunting in that they just stayed with me."

With some encouragement from the concert's director, Bridgewater began to explore Weill's prodigious musical output. Intrigued by what she found, Bridgewater decided to put together some of the composer's songs as a special project for the Montreal Jazz Festival in July of 2000. "We called it Kurt Weill -A Work in Progress," explains Bridgewater. "The audience reaction was just stupendous. They went absolutely crazy. I thought based on the reaction of the public that this would be something that would be good for an album."

While the inspiration may have been immediate, giving birth to the CD proved to be a difficult process. Personal circumstances, including the death of her stepfather, pushed the recording sessions back until November 2001. In the end, the delay benefited the project by providing Bridgewater with time to deepen and refine her understanding of Weill's music. The resulting CD, appropriately titled This Is New, contains some of Dee Dee Bridgewater's most accomplished singing to date as well as providing a unique and absorbing take on the music of Kurt Weill.

Although some of his melodies became well known standards, Kurt Weill was a musical dramatist rather than a composer of popular songs. Born in Germany on March 2, 1900, by his late 20s, Weill had become a leading composer of German opera. While the phrase "German opera" may conjure images for jazz fans of a heavyset woman wearing a horned helmet singing Wagner, Weill's music came from a different place entirely. Like many other artists in Germany's pre-World War II Weimar Republic, Weill became fascinated by the popular music of America especially jazz. Even though the jazz Weill heard in Berlin in the 20s was probably a bastardized version, the basic principles of "hot" music, particularly those relating to syncopation and the song form, left their mark.

In 1927, Weill began his now legendary collaboration with expressionist German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Because the Weill-Brecht works were really acid social commentary masquerading as theater, they provided an ideal opportunity for Weill to experiment with the marriage of "high" (classical) and "low" (popular) musical idioms. The musical balance Weill sought is not unlike that achieved by George Gershwin in his 1935 opera Porgy and Bess. Over a six year period, Weill and Brecht wrote Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny), Die Dreigoschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), Happy End and Die sieben Todsunden (The Seven Deadly Sins).

After the rise to power of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party, Weill, who was Jewish, fled Germany. He lived in Paris and London before finally settling in the New York. Weill recognized that the most stimulating American musical dramas were being produced not in the opera houses but in the commercial musical theater. From 1936 through his death in 1950, Weill composed a series of Broadway musicals with lyrics written by collaborators like the playwrights Paul Green (Johnny Johnson) and Maxwell Anderson (Knickerbocker Holiday, Lost in the Stars), the poets Ogden Nash (One Touch of Venus) and Langston Hughes (Street Scene), and the lyricists Ira Gershwin (Lady in the Dark, The Firebrand of Florence) and Alan Jay Lerner (Love Life). Although much debate exists as to the relative merits of Weill's German and American work, his Broadway scores, though perhaps less ambitious in scope, brought the composer's remarkable gift for melody to the fore.

When Dee Dee Bridgewater began her exploration of Kurt Weill's world, she quickly discovered that his work had never been the subject of a vocal jazz songbook. That's not to suggest that there had been a shortage of Weill tributes. Bridgewater listened to numerous recordings by opera, theatrical, cabaret and rock singers, and the more she listened, the more she noticed a pattern. "In all of these readings, the artists really stayed true rhythmically to that kind of Germanic, stilted, interpretative way of doing it musically," observes Bridgewater. "I just thought I'd die if I did it that way, and so I wanted to smooth out the edges. I wanted to get away from the dark, brooding image. I wanted to show a lighter side of Kurt Weill and a more humorous and a more sensual side of him because what struck me is that his melodies had a sensuality to them that I felt had never really been dealt with."

Nowhere on This Is New is Bridgewater's goal of lightening Weill better realized than her beautiful reading of "My Ship." This lovely song of yearning from Lady in the Dark has long been a favorite ballad among jazz singers. On most recordings of the tune, the song's metaphorical ship sounds stranded at sea in a dead calm. The heavy, dirge like quality of the melody and an emphasis on the uncertainty of the lyric usually combine to give the song a fatalistic overtone. In contrast, Bridgewater's "My Ship" moves gently across the sea buoyed by Ira Coleman's subtle bass work, Bernard Arcadio's discreet strings, and the singer's delicate, almost ethereal vocal. Bridgewater sings the song as a naļve declaration of faith. The woman in her "My Ship" still believes in her romantic dreams. "I didn't want the song to be too lush," explains Bridgewater, "so I took out some of the string parts so that it would be more airy."

Naturally, the repertoire chosen for This Is New reflects Bridgewater's particular view of Weill's work. "There are songs that I liked, but I didn't do because I thought the stories were too dark," explains the singer. "I loved 'Surabaya Johnny,' but that is a heavy tune. My selection really came out of the stories. I chose tunes that had humor to them or had a positive message. The darkest thing I have on the album is 'Alabama Song.'" Yet even there Bridgewater brings her own spin to the material by taking Weill and Brecht's tale of prostitutes and sailors in a direction that is more hedonistic than depraved.

As Bridgewater and her arrangers, ex-husband Cecil Bridgewater and longtime pianist Thierry Eliez, considered how best to bring out the warm colors of Weill's music, they found themselves turning to the sounds and rhythms of Latin music. "We didn't start out intending to go in that direction," explains the singer. "It just kind of emerged." Argentinean percussionist Minino Garay and guitarist Louis Winsberg, a flamenco specialist, were added to the band to better explore a variety of Latin rhythms. "These melodies to me are very sensual. So when you couple that with the instrumentation, it takes on a whole other life." The marriage of the German composer and the Latin rhythms is not as much of a stretch as it might seem. Weill himself utilized the tango form on "Youkali" from his score for Marie Galante, which Bridgewater sings in the original French accompanied by Argentinean Juan-Jose Mosalini on bandoneon. The Latin rhythms prove just as useful on material not originally conceived in that vein. One of the highlights of This Is New is the title track, which Bridgewater sings as an unabashed celebration of discovery set against a fiery samba background. Another remarkable marriage of Weill and Latin rhythms comes in the atmospheric, flamenco setting for Bilbao Song. Essentially a reminiscence of days gone, the arrangement gives the song the fevered quality of someone lost in her own memories; an impression heightened by guest soloist Antonio Hart' s flute. To her credit, Bridgewater did not allow the Latin spin to become an end in itself. "I actually undid some of the Latin stuff," explains the singer.

As her comments suggest, Bridgewater had definite ideas about the kind of arrangements she wanted. "Everything," laughs Bridgewater. "For example, I heard 'Speak Low' without piano, with trombone with the guitar and the percussion." Arrangements, according to Bridgewater, should be the result of a collaborative process. "I find that today oftentimes singers are held to the gun to respect the arrangement of the arranger more so than the other way around. The singer really has to be able to stand up for herself today." However, Bridgewater is quick to add, "I didn't have that problem with either [Cecil Bridgewater or Thierry Eliez]. Cecil [who arranged all but two tracks] is great in that I give him my indications and he gives me an arrangement. We are both trying to figure out what it is I hear anyway. He has no problem with me changing any part of what he's done for me because he is of the belief that the arrangement should service the artist it's been done for."

As with arrangers, Bridgewater looks for musicians who not only have the chops, but who are also enjoy the give and take of collaboration. "I love being part of an ensemble," she explains. "I love working together to create something. So that's why, I guess, my musicians have so much importance in my music and everyone has a say because it's my family and we're creating this thing together. I'm very aware of the fact that part of my sound lies in the musicians that I choose and the way they perform and play. The sound that we get together, it's all part of a whole."

On This Is New, the singer, the arrangements and the musicians offer a distinct spin on the music of Kurt Weill that does not compromise the integrity of the pieces themselves. Bridgewater believes that is a reflection of Weill's strength as a composer. "This music is so rich on every level," observes the singer. "It is harmonically rich. Structurally, it's just fantastic." Since Weill rarely wrote in the standard 32 bar song format, preferring instead to use odd meters, his music presents interesting challenges for a jazz musician. "It's a disaster for me to sing," says Bridgewater in mock exasperation. "It changes so much. I'm so used to a certain way of hearing music and this music throws me. It's the first time in a number of years where I'm having to put my thinking cap on and really having to pay attention to the music and to the melodies." Equally problematic from a jazz perspective are Weill's chord changes, which tend to be very tightly constructed. Explains Bridgewater, "He wrote some harmonies that have to be respected even in the arrangements, and so these are different chordal structures than we're accustomed to hearing and playing."

Anyone familiar with Bridgewater's previous work will immediately notice that This Is New contains comparatively little scat singing. "I can't do it," laughs Bridgewater. "Could not. Still cannot. I can do slight improvisations, but I can't do the scatting that I'm accustomed to doing. I can't do extended scats. I can do the tags. I can do a little in 'Alabama Song' because we just kind of stick to the blues structure. That's it. That's all you'll get out of me." Which, as far as Bridgewater is concerned, is perfectly fine. "The lyrics that accompany these melodies are so in depth that I can really tell the story," she explains "For once, I can really become the singer within the group, which is fun and is something I haven't done in years."

This newfound delight with storytelling shines through most clearly on "The Saga of Jenny," Weill & Ira Gershwin's play-within-a-song. A witty, tongue-twisting account of the havoc caused by a decisive woman over the course of her life, the song has largely been overlooked by jazz singers since Mildred Bailey recorded it in 1941. "I thought it was such a hysterical story," explains Bridgewater. "Ira Gershwin's lyrics [with Weill] are much more in depth than they are, I feel, in his work with his brother, George."

Bridgewater approached most of the lyrics without any preconceived ideas. "I had no way to connect [the songs] to the [theatrical] pieces that they belong to because I haven't read the pieces. So I just took the story that each song seemed to be telling, and I created a character for the telling of that story." Still, on "Lost in the Stars" and "September Song" (done without the female verse), Bridgewater sounds more taken with Weill's exquisite melodies than Maxwell Anderson's poetic, but abstract lyrics. On the other hand, Alan Jay Lerner's lyric for "Here I'll Stay" is a model of poetry placed in the service of meaning, and Bridgewater delivers a centered, deeply felt performance. Two of the albums strongest performances come on tunes with lyrics by Ogden Nash. It would seem impossible to swing "I'm a Stranger Here Myself" while still doing justice to Nash's smart, densely worded lyric. However, Bridgewater's explosive "Stranger" does exactly that. "I had to kind of work the syncopation of the some of the syllables of the some of the words a little bit differently to make it swing," explains the singer. Bridgewater also delivers a sensual, tension-filled "Speak Low," which she sings as a musical Pas de Deux with trombonist Denis LeLoup.

As accomplished and rich as This Is New might be, for Dee Dee Bridgewater, it represents only one step in her Weill journey. "This music, in live performance, there's just no question," laughs Bridgewater, who is currently planning to film her Gettin' Weill'd concert program for release on DVD. "Every song has become its own little jewel. 'September Song' has turned into funk city. [Bassist] Ira [Coleman] has found some licks to do on that that just wipe me out. 'Alabama Song' has become a hard-core bebop blues. We just go out on that one. I get real raunchy with it and have a ball."

Although the singer will not begin the American leg of her tour until October, she has been performing her all-Kurt Weill program in Europe. "I thought people in Geneva were going to jump off the balcony," laughs the Bridgewater. "People were going insane. Everywhere in Europe they were going insane. They were jumping up and down and talking back to me. It's hysterical. Now these musicians have become clowns. They do stuff that I don't even know what they are going to do. They talk back to me on numbers. They've become very theatrical. Even my drummer, Andre [Ceccarelli], who usually is very shy, he's getting up and dancing. They're going crazy. So the public, when they see this whole thing, it becomes something else. It's taken on a life of its own. It's certainly very, very musical theater."

Of course, the phrase "very, very musical theater" usually sends shudders down the back of jazz fans. However, Bridgewater's use of the phrase has more to do with concept and presentation rather than musical style. "Because these songs come from theater, I approach the concerts as if I were doing a theatrical piece," explains the musical comedy veteran. "Each song is its own vignette, and together, they seem to tell a whole story. It's theatrical without us going overboard. We've found a way to get each moment across theatrically without hitting people over the head, and I think that's fabulous."

Fabulous is certainly a word that has been used in the past to describe Bridgewater's freewheeling live performances. On stage, she holds nothing back telling the stories of her songs with her body as much as her voice She will loose herself dancing to the rhythms of "Cape Verde Blues" or provocatively seduce audience members on what has been for several years her signature closing number, "Love for Sale." A fantastic mimic with a quick wit, her humor is often as improvisational as her singing. Listeners who prefer singers to stand demurely at the microphone are often taken aback by her volcanic stage presence. "If I'm not going full out and full at it, then what's the point of me being on the stage? Then go see somebody else or just listen to the record. I'm physical. I'm very physical," explains Bridgewater. "I find now that I can be much freer on stage because it is a personality, it is a character I've created. Dee Dee Bridgewater has become a persona for me. I can talk about her like it's not me. I'm not as crazy in my private life as I am on stage. When I put on my make up and I put on the stage clothes then I become Dee Dee Bridgewater. When I take them off, I'm just being Denise Durand."

Denise Durand, it turns out, is a funny, intelligent and articulate mother of three with a clear sense of her own priorities. "My family. Everything I do is for my family. I was raised to believe in the importance of family and the extended family." Dee Dee was born Denise Garrett on May 27, 1950 in Memphis, Tennessee. Her father, Matthew Garrett, was an educator who also played trumpet for Dinah Washington. According to a story told by her mother, one day backstage, "The Queen of the Blues" cradled the infant Denise in her arms and declared that she would become a singer.

Dee Dee cites Nancy Wilson and Nina Simone as important early influences. Also, having been raised in Michigan, she naturally gravitated toward the Detroit-based Motown sound. Even more than the music, Motown Records, as a black owned label, represented the ideal of self-determination. In fact, much of Bridgewater's career can been seen as a struggle for the right to control her own work.

Dee Dee left college in Michigan after she entered and won a singing competition at the University of Illinois. She received an offer to tour the Soviet Union with the University of Illinois Jazz Band. At the competition she met, and soon thereafter married, trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater. In 1970, the Bridgewaters settled in New York where Cecil found work in the famed Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra and in Horace Silver's group. Dee Dee also signed on as the singer with the Jones/Lewis Orchestra appearing at the band's weekly Village Vanguard gig.

"That's my school," says Bridgewater. "Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band —that was my musical training. Everything I'm doing; you can trace it all back to my days with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis." Bridgewater cites her strong preference for arrangements as an example. "[The band] was a structured unit, and Thad would always improvise and rearrange within the structure, but we got greater levels of improvisation when there was a map. So I have to have a map. I have to have arrangements." It is also likely that four years of listening to the band contributed greatly to Bridgewater's uncanny gift for mimicking the sound of instruments.

Trumpeter Thad Jones took a special interest in his singer's work. "Most of my stuff came from Thad more than Mel. Thad always told me to sing that melody first. Give respect to the composer and the lyricist. Sing distinctly. Then improvise so people can appreciate the improvisation Then you go back to your melody and you take it out. That's basically been my structure."

Her tenure with the Jones/Lewis Orchestra provided Bridgewater with more than professional singing experience and sound advice, it shaped her fundamental ideas about sound and rhythm. Her powerful vocal projection, trumpet-like phrasing, hard-edged swing and use of dynamics are all built on the style of music she heard played by that large ensemble. In other words, Bridgewater doesn't sing like a big band singer, she sings like a big band "I am so transparent," agrees Bridgewater with a laugh. "There's nothing hidden. Everything I learned, how I hear my music came out of singing for four years with that big band. That's where I stopped."

The accuracy of Bridgewater's self-assessment can be tested by listening to her first solo album, Afro Blue, a small group record made in 1974 near the end of her tenure with the Jones/Lewis Orchestra. On Afro Blue, you can hear Bridgewater's present style already firmly in place including the brash, aggressive attack on the up-tempo numbers and the dreamy, floating quality of her ballads. That's not to suggest that the Dee Dee Bridgewater of 1974 and the Dee Dee Bridgewater of 2002 sound exactly the same, but the changes have primarily been of degree rather than kind. On Afro Blue, the casual confidence, cresting high notes, and polychromatic timbre of her current voice are missing. Similarly, her scat singing in 1974, though idiomatically fine, lacked the inventiveness and daring found in her present work.

Still, there was no denying that Bridgewater was an oddity in the early 1970s -the first real jazz singer to emerge from the Baby Boom Generation. She made frequent appearances with many of the leading jazz musicians of the early 70s, and many observers predicted greatness for the young singer. Unfortunately, the notoriety she was receiving did not sit well with Bridgewater's employers. "We had a love-hate relationship by the end because they thought I was stealing their thunder. People would leave the Vanguard if I wasn't performing. We went from me singing on every set to the last year singing two songs at the end of the night. So I would go do another gig and then be there at 1:00 a.m. for the last set to do my two songs," recalls the singer. Time has ameliorated any resentment Bridgewater might have felt. "I loved them both because they taught me so much," she says fondly.

However, in 1974, the 24-year-old singer was not ready to pick up the torch being offered to her by the jazz community. "I didn't want the stamp of being a jazz singer when I was young," she recalls. So Bridgewater auditioned for the original Broadway production of The Wiz, and, despite being a musical theater neophyte, she landed the role of Glinda, the Good Witch of the South. "I was the only one in The Wiz who didn't have a body mike because I had learned how to project my voice over the band," recalls Bridgewater. Her performance earned her the 1975 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.

Having triumphed on Broadway, Bridgewater spent much of the late 1970s pursuing a more overtly commercial musical path. "I sold out," she says unapologetically, adding, "but I had a good time. I really did I loved working with Jerry Wexler [Dee Dee Bridgewater on Atlantic]. I love my album with Stanley Clarke [Just Family on Elektra]. I love my album with George Duke [Bad for Me on Elektra]." However, she found that in the pop music arena, she had even less control over her work. "I thought that the artist was supposed to follow what the producer said and what the management said and the agents and these were all the great people that were going to lead you to stardom," explains Bridgewater. "I wanted to do rock in the worst imaginable way. That's why I signed with Elektra. They had the Eagles. They had Jackson Browne. I wanted to be like that, but they were like, 'Excuse me dear, you are black, you don't do rock.'"

Bridgewater married director Gilbert Moses, appeared in a couple of films and continued to work in musical theater. In the mid-1980s, her life took a detour when she received an offer to play Billie Holiday in Lady Day in Paris. The successful theatrical production transferred to London's West End, where Bridgewater received a Laurence Olivier Award nomination for Best Actress. The strong reception to her work in Europe and a messy divorce at home in the United States prompted Bridgewater to relocate to Paris.

In France, Bridgewater found herself a new husband, Jean-Marie Durand, and a new career. Although she continued to work intermittently in the theater, Bridgewater returned to jazz with a vengeance. By the end of the 1980s, she had become the darling of the French jazz community hosting her own jazz radio and television programs.

In 1987, she released Live in Paris, her first jazz recording in 13 years. Although the album proved that Bridgewater had not lost her jazz chops, the performances were a bit uneven. Too often on Live in Paris, Bridgewater leaned on the stylistic devices of her predecessors, most notably Sarah Vaughan, to navigate through the tunes. However, her invigorating and original work on "All Blues" suggested the quality of work Bridgewater was capable of producing.

The next few years proved to be schizophrenic for Bridgewater. Live in Paris, licensed to MCA and released in the United States in 1990, put Bridgewater's name back into circulation in the U.S. jazz community. However, her work in Europe veered between jazz (the very fine In Montreaux), and pop (Victim of Love). Bridgewater once again found her direction being dictated by her producer. "He started getting very large ideas about where I should go with the music, and it wasn't at all where I wanted to go," explains the singer. "I knew what I wanted to do in terms of jazz and this man did not know jazz. I felt that at 40 years old, it wouldn't behoove me to let someone younger than me dictate to me how to do my music and my career. So I kind of took over everything."

After a successful legal battle to free herself from her contract, Bridgewater approached French Polygram, the label that had distributed her In Montreaux album. "I said, 'I'm a free agent now, do you want to continue working with me?' I told them I wanted to produce my own albums, and they said no problem." Polygram signed Bridgewater to a four-album producer's contract with its subsidiary, Verve Records. "They license my albums and distribute them, but I own the masters. So it's another ballgame with me."

For the first time in her career, Bridgewater found herself with complete freedom to choose the songs she wanted to sing, the musicians she wanted to work with, and the sounds she wanted to explore. So she did the only thing that made sense—she went home. Nearly 20 years after running away from the jazz singer label, Bridgewater embraced it fully and unconditionally. The irony is not lost on her, "Like most young people, you want to try to do your own thing and eventually you end up doing the very thing you were trying to buck."

Keeping Tradition, the first CD carrying the label "produced by Dee Dee Bridgewater," appeared in 1993, and it's success solidified her status as an major jazz star on both sides of the Atlantic. More importantly, it was a smart, accomplished record that found Bridgewater stamping her own imprint on standards associated with Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Rather than trying to compete with Vaughan or Fitzgerald, Bridgewater successfully used their ideas about vocal improvisation as a springboard for her own.

Having paid homage to the popular song side of the vocal jazz tradition, Bridgewater turned her attention to the jazz tunes of the of hard bop composer Horace Silver. Silver's songs had been a staple of Bridgewater's repertoire from the very beginning of her career. In many respects, Silver embodied for Bridgewater what Duke Ellington embodied for Ella Fitzgerald—a composer whose work encapsulated a developmentally important time, place and musical sensibility. No doubt Bridgewater found the funkiness of Silver's music to be as enticing as its harmonic sophistication. "We toured that material for six months before we went into the studio, and I had to because it was so hard," recalls the singer. Love and Peace: A Tribute to Horace Silver turned out to be a triumph for Bridgewater, and she received the ultimate compliment of having Silver himself play on two of the album's tracks.

Bridgewater's next project, Prelude to a Kiss: The Duke Ellington Album, was a collaboration between the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and a group of jazz musicians including Bridgewater, Wynton Marsalis, Cyrus Chestnut, Steve Turre, Bobby Watson, and others. Bridgewater sings on about half the album and delivers commanding performances of Ellington tunes like "Caravan," "Bli-blip" and "I'm Beginning to See the Light."

The Ellington album served as preview for Bridgewater's most ambitious project to date, Dear Ella, a tribute to the First Lady of Song. Bridgewater had grown up listening to her mother play Fitzgerald's records, and when the iconic singer died in 1996, she found herself deeply moved. Bridgewater wanted to acknowledge the supreme importance of Fitzgerald's work to the art of jazz singing, but she had reservations. "I had difficulty convincing myself I could do it," she explains. At the strong urging of the late Ray Brown, Fitzgerald's ex-husband and a jazz legend in his own right, Bridgewater took up the challenge.

As she researched Ella's recordings, Bridgewater found herself fascinated by Fitzgerald's scat singing. "I was so impressed with the fact that she could go chorus after chorus after chorus after chorus," explains the singer. "I've changed my scatting style somewhat since listening to Ella. I don't sing as hard when I scat. I'm pretty much a bebop baby, and she was definitely a swing baby, so my approach to improvisation was harder than Ella's. When I softened it, I found that in not singing hard, I can do chorus after chorus after chorus. So that's what I learned from her. She taught me the incredible being of lightness."

Dear Ella is easily one of the most thought through and well-realized tribute albums in recent memory. More than a collection of songs associated with the singer, Dear Ella captures the full scope of Fitzgerald's artistic legacy. Bridgewater chose tunes from the span of Fitzgerald's career and set them in a variety of instrumental settings. She recruited a stunning array of jazz musicians, some of whom had worked with Fitzgerald, and several top-flight arrangers. While many all-star productions have a tendency to fall flat, everyone involved on Dear Ella rises to the occasion. For her part, Bridgewater doesn't make a false move singing with enormous warmth and humor throughout the record. Ultimately, though, it is Bridgewater's skill as an improviser that allows her to survive the inevitable comparisons to Fitzgerald. Whether floating through John Clayton's gorgeous string arrangement for "Let's Do It" or skillfully scatting through "Undecided," Bridgewater mines gold from the rich harmonic structure of her material. Dear Ella deservedly won the 1998 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album.

Bridgewater closed the decade with Live at Yoshi's, recorded at the well-known Oakland, California nightclub on what would have been Ella Fitzgerald's birthday weekend. Although most of the material is drawn from Dear Ella, Bridgewater's vibrant and spontaneous work allows Live at Yoshi's to stand on its own. Live at Yoshi's documents the geometric growth in Bridgewater's work since Live in Paris. Although Bridgewater's impression of Ella singing James Brown's "Sex Machine" is not to be missed, most of the highlights from Live at Yoshi's come from the interplay between the singer and the trio. As was true for Ella, Sarah, Carmen, Betty, Anita and most of the other great jazz singers, Bridgewater thrives in the anything-can-happen environment of a live performance. "We have to give 100%. I have a certain parameter that we can't fall beneath, but I will not try to be perfect on my voice," she explains. "I thought my scat solo on 'Cherokee' sucked, but I thought Thierry Eliez's organ solo was so awesome that I had to put it on [the CD]. I'm not a perfectionist in that I will not let an imperfect note exist on an album even if it's in the studio." That willingness to take the music out on an edge and risk failure has become a central theme in Bridgewater's work.

Unfortunately, not all kinds of risk appeal to all kinds of people. Although Bridgewater viewed her Kurt Weill songbook as "a gentle departure from my four years with Ella Fitzgerald," she has encountered some surprising resistance in the European jazz establishment. "I've been really hit hard mostly by the French critics. They are just saying, 'Shame on you! What do you think you're doing? You're not singing standards anymore!' I was their traditional jazz darling, and now Diana Krall has taken my place," says Bridgewater, who is clearly stung by the criticism. "I find it a little frightening and a little unsettling that some critics think a singer should not be allowed to explore other avenues. There is Cassandra [Wilson] who has set up her world so that people know whatever she does it's going to be different. Apart from that, the rest of us that have been identified with more traditional jazz music, it seems like when we want to take a step outside there is someone saying, 'Don't do that.'"

Still, Bridgewater intends to continue to stretch herself in new directions "I want to go into a deeper exploration of world music and African and Brazilian rhythms," offers Bridgewater. "I want to really collaborate with some musicians. There are some great African musicians I've met and Brazilian musicians I've met. I want to work with these guys and actually sit down and collaborate and come up with the melody together, then I'll come up with the story to accompany it." At a time when record companies can't get enough of singers recording standards, Bridgewater understands the danger of presenting original or unfamiliar material. "I've learned enough out of these 30 years to know that you have to take risks," she offers. "I can't worry about the jazz police. I only worry about my public. My role is to make the people happy, to give them as excellent a package as I can in a recorded sense, to give them as excellent a package as I can in a live performance, and the heck with the rest. I figure if I'm true to myself and I'm honest about what I'm doing and the public is enjoying it, then it is going to speak for itself. I cannot do something that somebody has dictated me to do. I've got to love what I'm doing."

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