Edsel Gomez’s fingers riff on the piano and instantly focus the audience. The band members enter, and saxophonist Greg Handy blows a late-Coltrane style solo complete with intense polyphonics. Dee Dee Bridgewater graces the stage in a sparkling, green sleeveless dress and exaggerated, long green eyelashes. She is greeted by applause and an audible “wow.” As she is about to perform a tribute to one of jazz’s great voices, Billie Holiday, her presence demands it. As she talks to the audience about what’s in store, the groove simmers beneath her.
After a sultry rendition of “Lady Sings the Blues,” Bridgewater theatrically paced the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall stage Saturday night, perusing the audience and asking, “Lover man, where oh where can you be?” She settled her glance on a lucky man and dipped into Holiday’s “Lover Man.” When she wasn’t singing, Bridgewater perched on a stool next to the grand piano and intently listened to what Gomez had to say as he soloed. She seemed to provoke and inspire each of her musicians to the highest levels of themselves.
In tribute, Bridgewater overcame the challenge of humanizing Billie Holiday to reveal the person behind the myth. All this while avoiding the trap of becoming Holiday. In fact, after “Don’t Explain,” she said, “I mean, I don’t know a woman like that . . . and she was a better woman than I, but maybe that’s why I’ve been married three times.” She proceeded to act out the kind of woman who is so neurotic that she breaks down without her man. “You’ve been gone all day, where’ve you been? It’s OK, don’t explain.” Gone are the days of the doting woman, relying on her man for her own happiness. Here are the days of the strong independent woman, which Bridgewater definitely embodies.
“Don’t Explain” was the pinnacle of the show. Handy’s haunting flute solo filled the hall above the slow churn of the groove. His genius is not only his ability to work through all the amazing technical and harmonic stuff, but to find the right note and squeeze every last drop of juice out of it.
Bridgewater’s whole act is no-holds-barred. She revels in her own charisma, does, and sings, whatever she feels without hesitation: booming out long, strong-bodied notes and melodies, breaking into theatrics whenever called for, scatting solos and even emulating the sound of Louis Armstrong plunging out a growly improvisation, ultimately maintaining just the right amount of tension that it makes the audience nervous and giddy (but not so much that she doesn’t get asked to come back). It was clear that this was jazz, but there was a show-circuit vibe fitting that Bridgewater lives in Vegas and is a Tony-award winner.
She broke into scat on a swinging version of “A Foggy Day.” Drummer Lewis Nash cut loose with an extended solo in a state of childlike wonder. “He’s like an octopus,” Bridgewater said carrying on about how one foot can be doing half time while the hands are doing double time. “I just don’t get it,” she sighed, “but he’s bad.” Meaning, of course, crazy good.
In this sense, the whole show was bad.