Billie Holiday was an elusive figure. Drug use and arrests provided an element of sensationalism to her life. A questionable depiction of her emerged in an autobiography that she later claimed never to have read. Her travails contributed to the rich, often mysterious emotional layering that always was present in her music.
But Wednesday night's "Broadway and Hollywood Salute to Billie Holiday" at the Hollywood Bowl did little--if anything--to add any insights, musically or personally.
To his credit, producer Danny Kapilian tried to bring some thematic cohesion to the evening by including readings from "Lady Sings the Blues," the above-mentioned autobiography. But Holiday's own assertions about the book (which is credited to her and writer William Dufty) undercut the authenticity of the evening's effort to present a full personal perspective.
Fortunately, there was enough musical talent on the bill to make for an entertaining evening--at least in the performances of those artists with sufficient jazz credibility of their own to properly approach songs associated with Lady Day.
Dianne Reeves, in her first musical appearance at the Bowl since she was appointed to the Philharmonic's newly established Creative Chair for Jazz post, sailed smoothly through a trio of songs--"You Go to My Head," "Detour Ahead" and "Comes Love"--thoroughly stamping them with her own musicality, warm sound and brisk sense of swing.
Oleta Adams, more closely associated with the urban music genre, applied some larger-than-life touches to "Good Morning, Heartache" and "Billie's Blues"--sometimes successfully, sometimes not. And Lou Rawls, always a distinctive stylist, sang "All of Me," "These Foolish Things" and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" in his characteristically jaunty manner.
Jimmy Scott's initial appearance was badly managed, however. Asking him to sing "Strange Fruit" directly after the recorded playing of Holiday's original version was a mistake. Who could possibly have followed such a searing classic with their own version, however impressive it might have been? Scott was much better in a later set, applying his idiosyncratic style to "Pennies From Heaven" and "They Can't Take That Away From Me."
The real surprise of the evening was the presence of the talented, young Atlanta-based singer Lizz Wright, making her California debut. Understandably a bit nervous with her first number, "I Cover the Waterfront," she followed up with a rendering of "Don't Explain" that offered convincing evidence of her potential as a new jazz vocal star.
The biggest question of the evening: What were Tom Wopat and Lea DeLaria--performers whose skills are better applied to television and musical comedy--doing on the bill?
Most of the musical backing for the program was provided by the solid playing of the Terence Blanchard Quintet (with some especially fine tenor saxophone work from Brice Winston) and a small string section.