Dee Dee Bridgewater's latest album, "Dear Ella," is a salute to legendary jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. In her opening night set at Catalina Bar & Grill on Tuesday night, Bridgewater made it clear that she intends to remain closely connected to the music and the style of performance symbolized by the first lady of song.
When someone in the jampacked, strongly reactive audience asked for one of Bridgewater's tunes from her brief flirtation with fusion jazz, she smiled but declined. "There are a lot of people who can sing that kind of music," she said, "but it's this music that has to be kept alive. And that's what I intend to do."
She was as good as her word with a brilliantly performed program dominated by songs from the American songbook. Beyond the familiarity of the tunes, however, beyond the inherent value of sustaining the standard repertoire, Bridgewater did more than simply keep the music alive. Each number, whether it was a stunningly lyrical rendering of "Midnight Sun" or an up-tempo romp through "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," was treated to thoughtful, imaginative interpretation.
Bridgewater's longtime music director and keyboardist, Thierry Eliez, directed bassist Thomas Bramerie and drummer Ali Jackson through strikingly colorful arrangements, each tailored to an impactful perspective on the material. On "Silk Stockings," for example, Bridgewater was framed by a mini-version of the classic Count Basie orchestration that allowed her to simulate a powerful big-band drive with the sheer forcefulness of her voice. On "Love for Sale," the classic Cole Porter theme emerged above a quirky, rhythmic pattern from Eliez's organ playing, moving into a full-blown, passionate expression of the tune's suggestive lyrics.
Bridgewater demonstrated, in addition to her lush balladry, her surging rhythms and her complete command of the stage, that she is one of the few jazz vocal artists who can convincingly employ the often-abused scat-singing style. Like so much else that was appealing about this superb performance, her success with her improvised scatting was founded upon an inherent musicality, as well as her constant capacity to interact creatively with her accompanists.
With work of this quality, Bridgewater--who has had erratic periods in her three-decade career--made a convincing case for her ascendancy to the top level of jazz vocal performance. This was jazz singing at its very best.
Dee Dee Bridgewater at Catalina Bar & Grill through Sunday. 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., (213) 466-2210. $12 cover tonight, $18 Friday and Saturday and $16 Sunday, with two-drink minimum. Bridgewater performs two shows nightly.