Jazz can be too serious. Images of the angry Charles Mingus, the intellectual Charlie Parker and the humorless Miles Davis haunt the genre. The blues themselves draw their name from the stories of heartbreak and misery along the Mississippi in turn of the century America. And there is perhaps no greater jazz tragedy than the too early passing of Billie Holiday at the age of 44 in 1959. Yet jazz, as I’ve noted before, is a palette of many colours, and as much virtue as there is in the emotionless pursuit of perfection as exemplified by some of the artists noted above, to me, jazz’s most endearing feature is its capacity for fun. The joy that can come from jazz is deeper, because it does originate from a place of pain. It is a cathartic release from a soul that has walked through the fire and emerged with a smile, recognizing that the hardest part of life is in the rear view mirror. Dee Dee Bridgewater, whose performance at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre last evening paid tribute to the late Ms. Holiday, is someone who knows how to find the fun inside the sorrow, how to wring it from the pores and swing it across the stage in golden platform shoes, while occasionally getting caught on the microphone cord.
In person, Dee Dee Bridgewater is a striking, unusual, inescapably jazz figure – tall, leggy, elegant and glamorous, without a single hair atop her head. Her background could not be more different than my jazz crush Emilie-Claire Barlow, but they are cut from the same cloth – seasoned performers possessed of extraordinary talent disciplined by impeccable timing and skill. Bridgewater’s background includes a Tony win on Broadway and work with jazz royalty like Dizzy Gillespie and Dexter Gordon, but even to a modest crowd (that should have been a capacity house – shame on you Burlington) she gives it her absolute all, demonstrating tremendous vocal dexterity by flitting between the notes of Billie Holiday’s best in a flawlessly choreographed dance that with lesser chops could have been a catastrophic mess. It’s not just a glorified karaoke night – where Billie Holiday’s take on these numbers was one of sorrow, Bridgewater rightly forges her own path, transforming them into songs of power and triumph while still paying tribute to the melancholy voice that originated them. (Bridgewater can actually do a flawless and spine-chilling impression of Billie Holiday’s voice, but apart from one brief, jaw-dropping demonstration between numbers, rightly steers clear of imitation.) Songs like “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Lover Man,” and “All of Me” become musical romps. “Mother’s Son-in-Law” is a sassy double act between Bridgewater and her bass player as she vamps goofily like a way-past-her-prime burlesque madam. One truly remarkable moment in “Fine and Mellow” sees Bridgewater performing a slide trombone solo – without a trombone. It borders on comic, even silly as she mimics the movements of the slide, but she captures the sound of the instrument with only her voice, like a jazz Rich Little. And in “A Foggy Day,” her quartet of piano, bass, drums and sax are each given their moment in the sun, proving that they share Bridgewater’s talent and ability to locate the kernel of joy inside each teardrop and spread it across the stage.
Improvisation lies at the heart of true jazz – bending and twisting the melody this way and that, playing themes to their outstretched limits. But as Dee Dee Bridgewater shows, that improvisation doesn’t always have to be so goshdarned dour. She and her band fuse ad libs, missteps and outright screw-ups into a smooth cocktail of pure entertainment. Unlike her younger contemporaries, Bridgewater is looking back at a long career and understands that she has nothing left to prove – at this point, she’s doing it for the sheer love of music. It’s a privilege to spend a few hours in the company of such a genuine performer, and one hopes that should Dee Dee Bridgewater pass through these streets again soon, that many more people will avail themselves of a priceless opportunity to watch a true professor of the spirit of jazz show them what it’s all about, and leave them smiling for their trouble.