Dee Dee Bridgewater’s world tour comes to Yoshi’s
Dee Dee Bridgewater didn’t have to go all the way to Poland to discover German theater composer Kurt Weill.
After all, she’d already covered his signature song – “Mack the Knife” – on her Ella Fitzgerald tribute album, and she’d already played the first African-American Sally Bowles in “Cabaret,” a play reminiscent of Weill’s work.
But if she hadn’t gone to Poland, the jazz singer and Broadway actress wouldn’t be dazzling Yoshi’s audiences this week with a full program of “theatrical jazz” for the club’s 30th anniversary celebration, and the Bay Area wouldn’t be “Gettin’ Weill’d.”
Bridgewater discovered the breadth of Weill’s work when she performed at the modernist songwriter’s 100th birthday commemoration in Wroclaw, Poland in March, 2000. She’d conquered the worlds of jazz (for which she’s won two Grammy awards) and theater (a Tony for “The Wiz”), but was still unprepared for the way that Weill tribute would energize her, creatively.
“Every song was treated completely differently,” Bridgewater said during a break from her world tour, speaking from Toulouse, France. “The orchestrations went from a hard rock to an opera with strings, to a kind of cabaret to a punk rock number…And what amazed me was that even though these women were singing in German or in Polish, and even though I didn’t understand what they were saying, I was just mesmerized.”
Bridgewater soon immersed herself in Weill’s repertoire, and now she’s hooked. “I’ve just fallen in love. I love this man’s music,” she says.
Bridgewater and Weill came together in an oddly elliptical way. Weill began his career in Germany in the 1920s, fled the Nazis to Paris and then New York in the 1930s, and found success on Broadway in the 1940s. (Weill died in 1950.) Bridgewater retraced Weill’s steps in reverse: She starred on Broadway in the 1970s, toured France with the musicals “Sophisticated Ladies” and “Lady Day” in the 1980s, settled down near Paris, and this spring introduced German audiences to the late Broadway works of Weill, completing the circle.
European theatergoers could not be happier. Although Weill and his German writing partner Bertolt Brecht are quite familiar to Europeans, many of the Broadway songs – written with American lyricists like Ira Gershwin and Alan Jay Lerner – are new to them. Bridgewater and her all-star European jazz ensemble packed opera houses from London to Istanbul. Bridgewater offered a select Continental run-down of audience reactions:
Bridgewater is eager to see how American audiences will respond. Many of her European fans couldn’t understand the English lyrics, so Americans might take even more from the show. “I’m quite excited,” Bridgewater said.
Bridgewater is also glad to be returning to the theater, in a sense; she performs each song in the show as “a little vignette,” having worked with arrangers to give each one a different “musical personality.”
This is not entirely new territory for the singer, who’s spent much of her career fusing jazz and theater. She played the lead in the reworked opera “Carmen Jazz,” and was nominated for England’s coveted Laurence Olivier Award for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in “Lady Day.”
What is new is that Bridgewater is now creating theatrical music, rather than the more familiar musical theater. Critics and fans alike have reveled in the jazz singer’s lively performances, but some have questioned where the musician ends and the actress begins. Bridgewater hopes “Getting’ Weill’d” makes things clear.
“I feel like I finally have found a music that expresses all of me,” Bridgewater said. “So I can pull up the theatricality, and it’s not too much; it makes sense in this context.”
Weill also gives Bridgewater a range of emotion – not to mention vocal dimension – that she’s found lacking in some of her other material: “I’d about had it with these light, kind of trite, cute songs; the pop songs of the ‘30s and ‘40s. I wanted more substance. This music, for me, is perfect. Because it’s very challenging musically, vocally, harmonically.”
The lyrics are also more complex than Bridgewater’s usual standards.
“The stories are richer. The melodies are richer. It’s just more intelligent,” Bridgewater said.
Yoshi’s audiences will hear selections from Bridgewater’s latest album, ‘This is New.”
Most of the songs are culled from Weill’s Broadway period, such as “Speak Low” and “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” from the play “Touch of Venus.” Unfortunately, Bridgewater won’t be signing many copies of “This is New,” because it won’t be released domestically until August 6. (The European version can be purchased online now.) She’ll be back in the States this fall for a full national tour.
Bridgewater committed to play as part of Yoshi’s 30th anniversary celebration before her album’s final release date changed. She kept her date as a “sneak preview” series because she considers Yoshi’s to be “family.”
Bridgewater also loves the acoustics of the club where she recorded her Grammy-nominated live album, “Live at Yoshi’s.”
“That little jazz club is the best club in the U.S. o f A. Bar none,”Bridgewater said.
Coming from a woman who’s filled in for Ella Fitzgerald at the Montreaux Jazz Festival and wowed audiences from Carnegie Hall to Paris’s Olympia Theatre, that’s strong praise, indeed.