Jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater is, by her own admission, a great imitator.
"I can sing a Billie Holiday song and sound just like her. . . . I could do this entire interview sounding like Billie Holiday," she says by phone from her home in New York.
Indeed, on that last sentence, Bridgewater shifts from her usual bright, declarative voice into Holiday's husky, broad-voweled cadence. It's an uncanny impersonation but not what she used to record "Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee Bridgewater," which won a Grammy this year for best jazz vocal album.
In fact, she went out of her way to avoid sounding too much like her singing hero. Bridgewater, who headlines the Rosslyn Jazz Festival on Saturday, delivered the vocals with an assertive brassiness far removed from Holiday's raspy drawl. Moreover, Bridgewater had her pianist, Edsel Gomez, radically alter the arrangements for the dozen songs plucked from Holiday's catalog. "Lady Sings the Blues" was no longer driven by New York swing but by West African polyrhythm, "All of Me" got chord changes and "Fine and Mellow" became funky.
"It wasn't that I decided to sound different from Billie," says Bridgewater, 61. "It was just me being myself. Edsel took the time to really listen to each of the musicians - including me - and to write for our strengths."
Bridgewater is a tall, athletic woman, and when she accepted her Grammy, her head was shaved, and she was wearing a sleeveless red gown. She couldn't have looked less like Holiday, who was never athletic and always had enough hair to hold a big camellia blossom.
It wasn't always that easy for Bridgewater to separate herself from Holiday's influence. At the end of 1983, she traveled to Paris with a production of the Duke Ellington musical revue "Sophisticated Ladies." She liked France so much that she moved there in 1985. She had won a Tony for her performance as Glinda in Broadway's "The Wiz," and she wanted to pursue acting.
Playwright Stephen Stahl crafted a musical for her, "Lady Day," in which she portrayed Holiday attempting a comeback in the late-'50s. It had a successful run in Paris in 1986 and an even better run the following year in London, where she was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award as best actress. But the show almost swallowed her alive.
"I did the show six nights a week for two years," Bridgewater says. "At first, I was trying to do a combination of Billie and me, but gradually she took over, and I was just singing like her. What was scary was when I finished the show in London, I didn't have my own voice anymore. I could only sing like Billie Holiday. I had to stop working for four months to get her out of my system. . . . I had to find the natural voice that I had."
Bridgewater had to find that voice again while working on "Midnight Sun," a retrospective collection released two weeks ago. She decided to organize it around romantic ballads, with the earliest tracks from the first album she produced herself, 1993's "Keeping Tradition." Included are songs from her tributes to Ella Fitzgerald, Horace Silver and Kurt Weill. "Midnight Sun" also includes two tracks in French in an homage to her time in Paris.
The singer says her next project will be an album of contemporary blues songs reinterpreted as jazz.
"Maybe because I'm getting older," she says, "I don't want to do older material anymore. I want to do things that will inspire me to move forward."
--Geoffrey Himes, Sept. 9, 2011