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Tucson Weekly Diva Deluxe

Grammy-winning vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater lives up to her reputation.

By Dave McElfresh

APRIL 20, 1998:  THOUGH JAZZ VOCALIST Dee Dee Bridgewater has lived in Paris for more than 12 years, better not call her a jazz expatriate. "I really resent being called an expatriate," she once told an interviewer, "who I think of as someone disenchanted with his country. That wasn't my case at all." While loads of jazz greats like Dexter Gordon, Steve Lacy and Ben Webster left the states for Europe in order to court larger, more appreciative audiences, Bridgewater has ironically garnered a sizable American following operating from her digs in France.

Her reputation began stateside, built on a vocal style heavily influenced by gospel music, Nina Simone, Nancy Wilson and Tina Turner. From 1971 on, Bridgewater accompanied some of the most regal jazz figures, working with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, Pharaoh Sanders, Dizzy Gillespie, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Stanley Clarke and Dexter Gordon--an exceptionally diverse list of employers whose styles range from bebop to free jazz and fusion.

A 1983 gig as part of the musical Sophisticated Ladies led her to France, where she was met with rave reviews. A return visit in the show Lady Day, in which she played Billie Holiday, further cemented her reputation among Parisians. At the end of the show's run, her daughters asked if they could remain in France.

As New York saxophonist Gordon discovered after years of living in Copenhagen, absence makes American hearts grow fonder. Through a career producing nearly a dozen jazz albums, Bridgewater's built a solid stateside audience--but not without setbacks. During an interview on BET's Jazz Central Station show, she spoke unflatteringly of her three early releases on the Elektra label.

"I never met the musicians who played on that album," she said of the last Elektra offering, all recorded while she still lived in New York. "I felt that this is not the way to make music." Live In Paris, recorded the year after her Lady Day stint, was radically different, convincing her French fans of her capabilities outside the arena of musicals.

Another live album, recorded three years later at the 1990 Montreux Jazz Festival, won over the rest of the jazz world. While the disc reviewed her past (featured tracks include Holiday's "Strange Fruit" and "A Child Is Born," from her days with Jones and Lewis) it also alluded to a future project via a medley of Horace Silver tunes. The jazz-funk pianist had hired Bridgewater's then-husband, trumpeter/flugelhornist Cecil Bridgewater, the year the couple was married. In 1996, songstress Bridgewater released a superb collection of Silver tunes entitled Love & Peace: A Tribute To Horace Silver, one of the most unique vocal tributes to appear in decades.

Unquestionably, though, her most highly acclaimed release to date is Dear Ella, recorded last year in honor of the late Ella Fitzgerald. Bridgewater's respect for her mentor nearly shelved the project, the singer fearing that a recording of Fitzgerald's classics would result in an unfavorable comparison. Veteran jazzman Ray Brown, who had been not only Fitzgerald's bassist but her husband at one point, coerced Bridgewater into carrying out her plans, bringing with him a number of musicians who had played with the late vocalist. Dear Ella became the first Ella Fitzgerald tribute album to surface following her death.

Typical of the feisty singer, Bridgewater intentionally chose songs from early in Fitzgerald's career, cuts that she was less familiar with, and less inclined to mimic--choices that also diminished her fear of being perceived as an opportunist. Americans and Europeans alike have received the album positively, including listeners residing in cactus country: The jazz diva's second Arizona visit in less than a year (the first having been at last September's jazz festival in Sedona) will no doubt be met with plenty of recent and long-term fans willing to set her up with a ranch and loads of club dates should she be open to giving up that damned far-off chateau.

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