More than two decades ago in Paris, Dee Dee Bridgewater began to make Billie Holiday’s music and mystique a part of herself. In the years since, she has expanded, refined and intensified her Holiday role while firmly establishing her own persona. Bridgewater’s tribute to Lady Day filled the Newmark Theater in downtown Portland last night. She demonstrated to the Portland Jazz Fesival audience that she is capable of an uncanny Holiday impression. She briefly employed it to comic effect as a way of emphasizing that imitation is not the point of her Holiday vehicle; music is.
Bridgewater’s musical skills went hand in hand with her ability as a superb actress. She used pieces from Holiday’s repertoire as points of departure to create distinctive jazz interpretations. The songs—well more than a dozen—included “Them There Eyes” taken fast and so laced with energy that it skirted the edge of mania; an amusing revival of Holiday’s first recording with Benny Goodman, “My Mother’s Son In Law,” and a “Strange Fruit” whose message she delivered with anguish so profound that it that sent a chill through the crowd. Pointedly, the house announcer introduced the evening as a performance by the Dee Dee Bridgewater Quintet. The group label is apt. She is the lead instrument in the band, which has all the interaction of a finely attuned bop group, with the sidemen enlisted in just enough schtick to help warrant calling the event a show. Bridgewater is pictured here with bassist Kenny Davis, whom she featured on several pieces, as she did tenor saxophonist Jimmy Greene, drummer Kenny Phelps and her long time musical director, pianist Edsel Gomez. They all soloed extensively and well
For all her acting, which is natural and unforced, the primary impression Bridgewater creates is of a jazz vocalist with unerring time and intonation who gets to the heart of a song. Following a standing ovation, she returned to the stage to sing a non-Holiday song, “Amazing Grace,” alone. On the final chorus, she invited the audience to sing along, but she gave it so much power and feeling that few had the temerity to join in.
A sizeable number of concertgoers circled down the winding stairway of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts to the Art Bar. The space has a bar, a restaurant and a three-story ceiling crowned with a sculptured dome that is itself a work of art. There, two hometown favorites who are also international successes appeared in one of their collaborations. For their duo gigs, it is Dave Frishberg’s policy to serve only as pianist with Rebecca Kilgore, not as a singer of his own famous songs. During the course of their two long, satisfying sets, someone on the margins of the room called for “Peel Me a Grape.” “Don’t know it,” Kilgore said. Frishberg gazed at the ceiling.
She knew plenty of other songs, many of them from albums the pair have made together. Someone—I think it was I—commented that people who attended the upstairs and the downstairs events had the pleasure of hearing in one evening two jazz vocalists who sing all but unfailingly in tune. At one point there was a missed harmonic signal. Kilgore veered slightly, but her sonar immediately locked her back onto the path. The repertoire included a few songs from Why Fight The Feeling, their album of Frank Loesser songs, among them “The Lady’s in Love With You” and “Can”t Get Out of This Mood,” the latter sung with languor that Kilgore seems to employ more frequently these days in her ballads. However, she has lost none of the sunny feeling she brings to up-tempo pieces. A spontaneous medley of “It’s Only a Paper Moon” and “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” was saturated with it.
Frishberg is often thought of as a pianist primarily influenced by stride and traditional players, but the internal rhythms he creates in his solos can hint at bebop and sometimes enter it outright. That was true in his solo last night on “Lover Come Back to Me” and in the following piece, with a complex chorus he built on Artie Shaw’s “Moon Ray.” In “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” he briefly led Kilgore into tango territory. They took “There’s No Business Like Show Business” slow, giving it a plaintive quality that probably never occurred to Ethel Merman. Finally, Kilgore and Frishberg performed “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” giving a nice Billiie Holiday symmetry to the evening that had begun hours before in the Newmark.