SINGING PRAISES: Google “Dee Dee Bridgewater + Santa Barbara” and the results may yield the phrase “Jazz Hall” (if not, this very column may help such search results). Whatever the grand vocalist’s other deserved achievements, awards, and bookings, longtime Santa Barbara jazzheads (you know who you are) will always fondly recall her performance in Jazz Hall, the tiny-but-mighty and short-lived jazz haunt on Victoria Street. Bridgewater, on the brink of blossoming into larger public profile, put on a great show for a sardine-can-packed house in the mid-1990s.
Ironically, part of the change in respect level had to do with the advancing status of jazz vocalists, thanks in part to Diana Krall’s meteoric rise to fame starting in the late ’90s. Bridgewater, one of jazz’s finest for many years, has the chops, humor, sass, sophistication, and tentacles in theater to pull off whatever she aims to do, and her latest project is a tribute to Billie Holiday, which brings us—and her—to the Lobero on Saturday, March 20.
Her new album is To Billie With Love from Dee Dee Bridgewater (on her own DDB label), and the singer is backed by pianist/arranger Edsel Gomez, saxist James Carter, drummer Lewis Nash, and bassist Christian McBride (who brings his own group to the Lobero on May 18).
Bridgewater is one of those wonders of the jazz world, whose versatility and easy-going charm aid her in making things work, whatever twist or tinge they may take. In 2006, she put on a great show at Campbell Hall in tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, but in the past five years has also put out fascinating specialty projects off to the side of conventional jazz, from the French-themed J’ai Deux Amours (she has lived, at least part-time, in Paris for many years) to the inventive African-oriented project Red Earth in 2007.
The last time I caught the singer, oddly but naturally enough, was in Copenhagen’s loveably kitschy Tivoli Gardens. The Copenhagen Jazz Festival hosted the gig, and the Tivoli Big Band backed her ably for listeners who were there both because of the festival and just, well, just because it was a summer evening in the Tivoli. Not surprisingly, Bridgewater won over both camps. That’s the way she rolls, entertaining the troops and impressing the discerning jazz lover. To hear her singing the eerie-cool “Midnight Sun,” while I zoomed around on the 95-year-old Tivoli rollercoaster, the Rutschebanen—around midnight, no less—added up to a memorable convergence of site, sound, and vibe.
Truth be told, Bridgewater is generally better-suited to paying homage to big-voiced singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan than to Holiday, at least in terms of a natural affinity and similarity of vocal stylization. Where Ella executed virtuoso twists and turns, Lady Day’s uniqueness of expression was something much more ethereal and un-repeatable in a different way, brushed with gauzy mystery, vulnerability and strength amidst adversity.
Bridgewater leans into the winds of Holiday’s influence on the slower tunes “You’ve Changed” and “Don’t Explain,” and closes the album with Holiday’s most haunting classic “Strange Fruit,” a tuneful dirge about a lynching. Differences aside, of course, the idea of Bridgewater’s tribute is more about a spiritual call than a facsimile game, and Bridgewater sends out a love letter to Lady Day in her own way, in her own voice. And what a voice it is—one always worth seizing an opportunity to hear, especially in the moment and in any room, inside or out.
BIG BAND PULSE, ON THE MARCH: Big band jazz’s local field day continues, between the Bob Florence tribute band, “little big band” SFJAZZ Collective, and this Monday’s annual SBCC Jazz Ensemble “Legends of Jazz” concert, at the Marjorie Luke Theatre. As usual, SBCC’s three bands—the “Monday Madness” group being the jewel—will be joined by a mid-career “legend,” the musician’s musician, tenor saxist and big band leader/composer Bob Mintzer, now on the USC faculty, and a member of the Yellowjackets, among his multiple projects.