Even though she portrayed Billie Holiday onstage in Paris and London some years ago, apparently to rave reviews, Dee Dee Bridgewater doesn’t try to channel her on Eleanora Fagan (1915–1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee Bridgewater (DDB/Emarcy). If anything, when not evoking the raspiness of Holiday’s later years, as on “Don’t Explain,” Bridgewater often seems to be going out of her way not to sound like Holiday, even in passing. This is admirable, but only in theory, because it brings Eleanora Fagan face to face with a dilemma confronting all jazz “tribute” albums: If the iconic figure to whom you’re genuflecting was as much identified with an approach to material as with the material itself, then doesn’t approaching those tunes differently risk sacrificing something absolutely essential?
“Diana Ross’s singing is too close,” Pauline Kael complained of the 1972 movie Lady Sings the Blues. “When she sings the songs that Holiday’s phrasing fixed in our minds and imitates that phrasing, our memories are blurred. I felt as if I were losing something.” Afterward, Kael lamented, “You have to retrieve her at the phonograph—you have to do restoration work on your own past.” Inasmuch as the movie loosed an avalanche of Holiday reissues, Kael’s worry that a coy approximation would drive the genuine article from memory proved groundless. But memory can become generic, and to the extent that Holiday’s small, wounding voice has blended with more robust black female voices in the public mind, don’t blame Ross for supposedly coming too close—blame others who seem to think all it takes is pinning a white gardenia behind one ear. Sandra Reaves-Phillips, for example, in her 1980s one-woman revue The Late, Great Ladies of Jazz and Blues, subjected Holiday, Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson, and Dinah Washington to the same crude, Big Mama, meat-shakin’-on-the-bone, Broadway caricature—as if being victims of systemic racism and abusive, parasitic men rendered all of them one.
For what it’s worth, Bridgewater sports a gardenia in her stylized cover photo. But her shaved head makes the effect somewhat ironic, and her un-Ladylike exhortations to drummer Lewis Nash on “Miss Brown to You” and bassist Christian McBride on “Mother’s Son-in-Law” notwithstanding, she’s too smart and too committed to a jazz aesthetic to make the same mistake as Reaves-Phillips. Even so, she and Holiday are just too unlikely a match.
Coming of age during the Great Depression, Holiday made do with table scraps in terms of conventional vocal technique. Her artistry depended on phrasing—on slight shifts in inflection that not only lent deeper meaning to even the most sentimental or trivial lyric (often by tacitly mocking it), but that also yielded harmonic enrichments and rhythmic displacements as surprising as those of Louis Armstrong or Lester Young. She became a public emblem of self-indulgence for her personal life—especially following the publication of a tawdry, ghosted autobiography in 1956—but her singing was never self-indulgent. Self-pitying, maybe, toward the bitter end. But blessedly, she lacked the equipment for vocal self-indulgence.
At her best, lavishing big feelings on superior ballads like “Good Morning, Heartache” and “You’ve Changed” (both of which benefit from James Carter’s atmospheric scene-setting on bass clarinet and tenor saxophone, respectively), Bridgewater has technique to spare on Eleanora Fagan, including a Sarah Vaughan–like tessitura she can’t stop herself from showing off. Unlike Holiday, who lingered behind the beat with no desire to ruin the suspense by catching up, Bridgewater has seemingly never been confronted with an uptempo pace she couldn’t outrun.
This is who she is, and it can be great fun. One of her trademarks is fragmenting an entire line or two of a lyric into a rapid-fire, evenly accented staccato, and when she gets going on pianist Edsel Gomez’s tricky, polyrhythmic arrangement of “Lady Sings the Blues” to open the album, her momentum pulls you right along—a Holiday plaint is successfully transformed into a sassy celebration. But Bridgewater uses this device far too often as the album progresses, and some of her attempts to put her own stamp on Holiday’s material come off as perverse. When she changes “Lover Man” from a naked, erotic plea into a flirty nursery rhyme, it’s as if she’s taken the wrong message from Glenn Coulter’s famous observation that “next to Billie, others singing of love sound like little girls playing house.”
Eleanora Fagan goes completely off the rails only at the very end, with an anguished and—dare I say it?—overdramatized reading of “Strange Fruit” that owes more to Nina Simone than Holiday (“an actress without an act,” in the words of Martin Williams, as long as I’m quoting other writers), who trusted Abel Meeropol’s graphic imagery of a Southern lynching to speak for itself—as if watching events unfold with an audience spellbound by her every word, too shocked to register outrage until the end. (At least Bridgewater doesn’t follow it with “Willow, Weep for Me,” as Nnenna Freelon did on her 2005 Holiday tribute album.) Here we have what might be the most telling difference between Holiday and Bridgewater. In her final years, Holiday could be openly contemptuous toward audiences she sensed were there strictly for the schadenfreude. But even on her carefree early recordings, she sounds completely within herself, indifferent to anyone but her fellow musicians. Bridgewater, conversely, is a born crowd-pleaser, and just how theatrical she is became fully apparent to me once I heard Eleanora Fagan over speakers instead of headphones—she requires a stage larger than my hat size. Whereas Holiday, though keeping her distance, always seems to be emanating from within your head, leaving enough to the imagination to be a figment of it.
The snatch of lyric that kept going through my head as I listened to Eleanora Fagan and Stephanie Nakasian’s much more modest Billie Remembered was from Irene Kitching and Arthur Herzog’s “Ghost of Yesterday”—”mournfully, scornfully dead.” Though the song isn’t on either album, I think that insistent internal rhyme personifying a lost love came to mind because it uncannily describes a contemporary jazz scene haunted by totemic figures long departed. No matter how honorably intended, a tribute to Holiday (or to Ellington, Monk, Miles, Coltrane, etc.) is a tacit attempt by a living musician to do business under the shelter of a recognized brand. In Holiday’s case, that gardenia amounts to a logo.
Even so, we can all name albums on which retracing the footsteps of giants, though they risk sinking in them, yields deeply satisfying results, and though Carmen McRae’s 1962 Lover Man, which caught both Holiday’s ups and downs, will forever remain the gold standard, Billie Remembered joins it near the top of the list. Nakasian, who is white, understandably shies away from Holiday’s more racially or autobiographically charged material, instead focusing on the ebullient sides she recorded with leading lights of the swing era in 1935 and ’36, when she was barely out of her teens and still laughing at life. These are songs frequently dismissed as piffle, but no one needs to apologize for “These Foolish Things” or Dorothy Parker’s charming lyrics to “I Wished on the Moon,” or minor items like “It’s Like Reaching for the Moon” and “No Regrets,” which still have Billie’s fragrance on them.
The album’s triumph is largely one of context. Along with pianist Hod O’Brien (Nakasian’s husband and music director), the seven-piece band includes tenor saxophonist Harry Allen, trumpeter Randy Sandke, and alto saxophonist and clarinetist Dan Block, all of whom have long evinced genuine affinity for ’30s jazz styles. When was the last time you heard rhythm guitar on a jazz record? The venerable Marty Grosz again proves himself the best in the business of selfless propulsion since Freddie Green, and the only apt word for his chording behind Nakasian on the verse to “These Foolish Things” is “lovely.”
None of which would matter if Nakasian didn’t have a keen appreciation of the era herself. A regular on the public-radio program Riverwalk, she can be a talented mimic, and if all you knew by her was Thrush Hour, a 2004 CD on which she pointlessly does 20 songs in the styles of singers ranging from Bessie Smith to Blossom Dearie, you’d think that’s all she is. But here, as on her earlier salutes to June Christie and Lee Wiley, she gives you just enough of the original artist to acknowledge a prior claim to these numbers. Although in her fifties, Nakasian captures some of the youthful Billie’s lilt—and she has enough confidence in herself and in her honoree to know that a little lilt goes a long way. You might never know what Billie Holiday actually sounded like from Eleanora Fagan. But Billie Remembered would at least give you the right idea.