Anita Gillette & Dee Dee Bridgewater at Birdland - New York City Article
Anita Gillette & Dee Dee Bridgewater at Birdland Follow @nyccitiview
Anita Gillette Celebrates Irving Berlin
“Me & Mr. B”
Dee Dee Bridgewater Celebrates Josephine Baker
315 W 44th Street, (212) 581-3080
Through Saturday, October 6
It’s always something special when both shows at Birdland, which, since July has been the “other” multiplex jazz performance space in New York, dovetail with and complement each other, and this week we have two veteran divas, one more Broadway and cabaret, the other purely jazz but with also considerable musical theater chops, both celebrating two legendary figures in the American cultural pantheon. And what’s more, both of them sing “Blue Skies”: Anita Gillette sings it more closely to the way the song was originally introduced in 1926, complete with the verse (not heard all that often) whereas Dee Dee Bridgewater gives us a modernist and largely improvised, heavily swinging jazz on the 90+ year old standard.
Both shows are especially welcome: there have been other depictions of Berlin that talk about how petty and cantankerous he was, particularly in the later years. But Gillette, who worked with him on his final show, Mr. President, in 1962 and stayed friendly with him for the remaining quarter century of his life, gives us a believable portrait of a warm and generous man. It’s a good balance of Berlin classics and rarities, quite a few of which are actually from Mr. President - the show was not a hit, but the score was Berlin at his best, especially Ms. Gillette’s comedy turn, “The Secret Service.” There’s also “Stay Down Here Where You Belong,” an anti-war anthem that embarrassed the composer when it was revived in the era of Vietnam by Groucho Marx and Tiny Tim (not together). Two very welcome guest stars help bring two other infrequently heard Berlin gems to life, including “Pack Up Your Sins,” heard as a contrapuntal duet with Ms. Gillette’s longtime performing partner Penny Fuller. I had always thought “Mr. Monotony” (dropped from Easter Parade) was grade-B Berlin at best, but Ms. Gillette’s snazzy duet with New Orleans trombonist David L. Harris makes me think otherwise.
Likewise, Dee Dee Bridgewater’s show gives us the musical side of a woman usually held up as a icon, a symbol of female and black achievement, as well as of American culture, for the first time, on the world stage. Yet for all the biographies and documentaries about Josephine Baker, this is the first time in my memory that a major contemporary jazz singer like Miss Bridgewater has actually invested the effort in exploring the songs that she sang. We are reminded that Miss Baker was the toast of two continents, not just because of her outrageousness and the uniqueness of a sexy, liberate African American female at that moment in history, but because she was an outstanding entertainer who sang some pretty badass songs. And a highly multi-culti repertoire it was too, starting with "La petite tonkinoise,” a French-Asian mashup, and a Caribbean novelty, obviously about gardening, with a calypso beat, titled “Don’t Touch My Tomatoes.”
There’s only two more nights for this double header, and thankfully, Gianni Valenti, the big man at Birdland, has set everything up so that one can catch Ms. Gillette downstairs at 7PM, and then make it upstairs in time to enjoy Ms. Bridgewater. Individually or together, it’s a truly memorable evening.
Author: Will Friedwald
Will Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, VANITY FAIR and PLAYBOY magazine and reviews current shows for THE CITIVIEW NEW YORK. He also is the author of nine books, including the award-winning A BIOGRAPHICAL GUIDE TO THE GREAT JAZZ AND POP SINGERS, SINATRA: THE SONG IS YOU, STARDUST MELODIES, TONY BENNETT: THE GOOD LIFE, LOONEY TUNES & MERRIE MELODIES, and JAZZ SINGING. He has written over 600 liner notes for compact discs, received ten Grammy nominations, and appears frequently on television and other documentaries. He is also a consultant and curator for Apple Music.
SINATRA: THE SONG IS YOU - NEW REVISED EDITION (Chicago Review Press, May 2018)