I have a new favorite song but, regretfully, I can't tell you what it is. The jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater has included the song as a "hidden track" on her new record of Kurt Weill songs, This Is New.
Suffice it to say that the track in question is a recording of Weill's most famous composition, the lyric is by Bert Brecht, and there is a shark in it. Bridgewater wades giddily into the standard, grabbing at each phrase, creating a sly, silly, and sexy version that is somewhere between the menacing overture intended by the authors and the Vegas-y mush made famous by Bobby Darin. (I trust I haven't given away the song's identity). Cecil Bridgewater's arrangement is a burbling soundscape, alive with light drums and jingling things. The Pink Panther theme sneaks in and out of the song at one point, as do bopping, buoyant horns. And there is a scat break.
I could listen to this track over and over again. Luckily, the rest of This Is New offers treasures galore. Dee Dee Bridgewater, whose past work includes tributes to Duke Ellington, Horace Silver, and Ella Fitzgerald, turns now to a composer from outside the jazz idiom. The result is odd, certainly, but it's a powerfully compelling oddness, thanks largely to the strength of Bridgewater's voice and the talent of the musicians she's assembled.
It is also a treat to hear the compositions of Weill, too often presented as cold things, brought to life with such fun and illumination. Though Bridgewater is clearly enamored of the German master, her affection translates not into stuffy reverence but into a sort of flirtatious playfulness. On "Alabama Song," another of Weill's most famous tunes, the singer gets more and more into the spirit as she goes along, investing a dirty little song of longing with all the gritty, winking charm it deserves -- a feat aided in no small part by Thierry Eliez on the Hammond B3 and a terrific series of jaunty horn solos, building up to the famous unison section on which the song pivots.
"Lost in the Stars," from the show of the same title, is genuinely transformed: I have the cast album and barely recognized Bridgewater's version on first listen. I now prefer it. Her gentle, passionate treatment of the lyric, and the lush arrangement of the chorus, put the focus squarely on the theme: faith, and the questioning thereof. "Bilbao Song," adorned with flamenco guitars and a jumpy rhythm, is slightly less successful but still fun.
The way that Bridgewater sings, and the way her group plays, suggests that there are no structures at all here: Kurt Weill, of all people, wrote nothing but loose and flowing swing tunes. Bridgewater and her band blend phrases into phrases, and parts into parts, with a stunning ease. When they bust into the bridge of "I'm a Stranger Here Myself" from One Touch of Venus -- the section where Bridgewater sings "I dream of a day, of a gay, warm day / With my face between his hands" -- what sounds like a shift in time signature from an easy 4/4 to a trotting double-time is like a jolt of electricity. Yet, somehow, it doesn't feel abrupt, possibly because Bridgewater dances the lyric along (a terrific lyric, by the by, from Ogden Nash) in perfect time with the accompaniment as it shifts.
I have no idea whether Bridgewater, a jazz singer who has also been a favorite on Broadway (she picked up a Tony for The Wiz), intends to continue making records of the songs of show tune composers. I hope so -- and I have a short list of requests.
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