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Dee Dee Bridgewater: Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee

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A quarter-century ago, Dee Dee Bridgewater paid homage to the sound and style of Billie Holiday with the acclaimed stage production Lady Day, based on Holiday’s autobiography. Since she was actually portraying Holiday, it was necessary for Bridgewater to be vocally imitative—and what a fine mimic she was. Now, with Bridgewater having advanced from Holiday pupil to full-fledged peer, derivativeness is behind her. It comes as no surprise that her performances of a dozen Holiday classics, running the gamut from the lighthearted coquettishness of “Mother’s Son-in-Law” to the grisly depths of “Strange Fruit,” are astounding. We’d expect nothing less.

But even greater credit for the tracks’ remarkable freshness and keen imaginativeness must go to pianist Edsel Gomez, who crafted the arrangements. Though some of the tracks represent complete transformation, like his swinging reharmonization of “All of Me,” Gomez excels at subtle yet utterly arresting alterations. In “Lady Sings the Blues,” for example, rather than painting it in gray tones of prevailing sadness (as is usually done), Gomez understands that Holiday’s lyric is really about renewed self-possession, so he makes it pulse with vibrant energy. More profoundly, in “Strange Fruit,” the aching desperation that electrified Holiday’s reading remains fully evident in Bridgewater’s, but it is now underscored by a chilled anger. Assisting Gomez in the superb realization of his adroit vision is what Bridgewater aptly dubs her “dream band” of drummer Lewis Nash, bassist Christian McBride and woodwind player James Carter, magicians all.

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