Toward the end of "Billie & Me," the salute to jazz legend Billie Holiday presented at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Saturday night, singer Dianne Reeves moved from "God Bless the Child" to improvised testimony, heartfelt and soaring.
Holiday's greatest gift to her, sang Reeves, "was the freedom to express myself the way I want to." By then, though, these words didn't exactly qualify as news: Far from mimicking Holiday's languid, behind-the-beat phrasing, Reeves's voice sounded radiantly alive throughout the concert, as agile as it was soulful and passionate.
The remaining vocalists on the bill -- Rita Coolidge, Joan Osborne, Niki Harris and the Malian-born soprano Rokia Traore -- consistently underscored Reeves's belief that Holiday's legacy is life- and art-affirming. Each did so in her own way, though none matched Reeves's commanding power and presence. Coolidge played to her strengths as a balladeer when quietly reviving the longing refrain "I Cover the Waterfront." Harris's performance, brassy and poignant by turns, included a tenderly affecting version of "For All We Know." Osborne confidently explored more contemporary sounds, often fusing elements of pop, jazz gospel, blues and R&B. Traore, the evening's revelation, helped charge the concert with a strong spiritual and rhythmic current, particularly when collaborating with Reeves on "Strange Fruit." All the while, a midsize horn-powered ensemble led by drummer Terri Lyne Carrington colorfully orchestrated the shifting moods, though the group sounded awfully shorthanded when attempting to evoke Holiday's travels with the Count Basie orchestra.
There were other hitches, too: problems with the sound mix in the early going, and with the pacing. A routine narrative tracing Holiday's life, from her horrific childhood in Baltimore to the triumphs and tragedies that ensued, was read by Coolidge, interspersed with snippets of the singer's recordings and a modest slide show of vintage photographs that sometimes lingered without purpose. Still, nothing deterred the capacity crowd from delivering a standing ovation when all the singers assembled onstage for a finale that included a surefire and unabashedly sentimental send-off: "I'll Be Seeing You."
-- Mike Joyce