It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that Dee Dee Bridgewater chose to record a tribute album to Billie Holiday. In quick succession beginning in the mid-'90s Bridgewater cut tribute albums to Ella Fitzgerald, Horace Silver, and Kurt Weill, and prior to that, in the late '80s, she was nominated for an award for her one-woman star turn in a European theater production of Lady Day, the Holiday story. That Bridgewater would eventually turn to Holiday (whose given name of Eleanora Fagan explains the title) for an album-length exploration was almost a given -- it was just a question of when. It's one of her grandest efforts, too. With arrangements by Edsel Gomez (who also provides piano) and a stellar cast of participants including bassist Christian McBride, saxophonist/flutist/bass clarinetist James Carter, and drummer Lewis Nash, Bridgewater doesn't attempt to mimic Holiday's mannerisms or inflections but, as one would expect of such a gifted artist, to absorb and reframe Holiday -- this is pure Bridgewater, not another performance of Lady Day. Gomez, for his part, quite often pulls the arrangements squarely away from Holiday territory to reinvent these classic songs for a modern audience. The opening "Lady Sings the Blues" is both instantly recognizable yet freshly reconceived as something of an uptempo blues packed with polyrhythmic punch. "All of Me," which follows, is taken at near-breakneck speed, Bridgewater jumping ahead of the beat, following Carter's thrilling soprano sax solo with a raging scat that's more Ella than Billie. Not everything is meant to redefine, though: "God Bless the Child" is mostly true to the original, though Carter's soprano solo again brings the tune into the new century, and "Lover Man," though livelier than Holiday's take, is offered in a somewhat timeless and straightforward manner. As one might expect, there's no way a singer with Bridgewater's commitment to jazz history could release a Holiday tribute without tackling "Strange Fruit," the controversial anti-lynching landmark that remains Holiday's most daring moment, and it's saved for last here. It's an eerie, ominous interpretation, Bridgewater's raw vocal up front and fraught with emotion. Carter's brooding bass clarinet and McBride's bass lend a foreboding quality to the take, Nash relies heavily on his cymbals to dramatic effect, and Gomez's piano is subtle, allowing the nakedness of Bridgewater's voice -- at times unaccompanied -- to retell this story that can never be told enough. It's a stunning finale to one of the finest Billie Holiday homages ever recorded.
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AllMusic Review by Jeff Tamarkin