Blue notes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 May, 2010, 12:00am

Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love from Dee Dee Bridgewater is not the diva's first tribute project: she performed her 'homage' to Ella Fitzgerald, Dear Ella, at the 2003 Hong Kong Arts Festival, and has also recorded albums dedicated to Kurt Weill and Horace Silver.

To Billie is more personal. Bridgewater's relationship with Fagan - aka Billie Holiday or Lady Day - goes back to the 1980s when she put on a one-woman show based on Holiday's autobiography, the ghostwritten Lady Sings the Blues, and to her consternation found her own voice and style drifting away as night after night she 'channelled' jazz's tragic heroine. 'She took over. I couldn't sing like myself. It was as if I were possessed, living for two years in this eerie state,' she recalls.

Bridgewater got her voice back at the end of the run in London, where she was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award for best actress, and stepped away from musical theatre and back to jazz.

The show, Lady Day, never made it to Broadway; nearly 20 years later and with the 50th anniversary of its subject's death looming, Bridgewater decided she was finally ready to take it there. The relaunch didn't work out, but to support it she had recorded an album of songs Holiday wrote or was associated with - not in the period piece style of the show's arrangements but as modern jazz performances - sung Dee Dee Bridgewater style.

She also challenged the stereotyped image of Holiday as essentially a victim who happened to have the genius to shape her pain into art. To Billie would not be 'anything that goes dark and sullen and maudlin. I wanted the album to be joyful.' She has succeeded - up to a point.

There is too much melancholia in the best of Holiday's work for that quality to be altogether missing from the project, nor can darkness be entirely absent from a collection of songs that includes Strange Fruit - about a lynching Holiday sang in defiance of the wishes of the promoters and nightclub owners who employed her.

On the whole Bridgewater has imparted a swinging jauntiness to songs usually played slowly and sadly - notably Lady Sings the Blues and Lover Man - and selected others which start out upbeat, such as Miss Brown to You and Mother's Son In Law. On others which can go either way - All of Me, A Foggy Day in London Town - she sticks to the sunny side of the street.

She has the support of a great band: bassist Christian McBride and drummer Lewis Nash make a fine rhythm section; pianist Edsel Gomez, who came up with the arrangements, has worked with Bridgewater for five years and was with her in 2007 when she played the Macau Cultural Centre.

Bridgewater's principal foil is James Carter, who plays tenor sax, soprano sax, bass clarinet and alto flute, providing a commentary on the vocal with each instrument and pushing the diva to new heights.

There are moments - especially on Strange Fruit, God Bless the Child and Good Morning Heartache, some of Lady Day's signature songs - when one is aware of a slight echo of her mannerisms in Bridgewater's phrasing, but on the whole she is recognisably herself, and clearly in no danger of drifting back into that 'eerie state' - even if the ghost is present at the party.