The difficulty of bringing to a song the qualities that Billie Holiday did during her recording years of 1933-58 was amplified in a mixed bag of Holiday-related renditions at the Bowl. The sensitivity, the off-beat phrasing, emotional weariness — hallmarks of Holiday’s style — showed up in the perfs of the youngest and oldest singers on the bill — Lizz Wright, who has signed with Verve but hasn’t released an album, and Jimmy Scott, who celebrated his 77th birthday at the Holiday fete.
Scott, who started recording as a leader not long before Holiday died, sparkled on several gems in the Holiday songbook — “Strange Fruit,” which ended the first half; the Gershwins’ “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” emoting from the darker reaches of the soul; and a spry “Pennies From Heaven.”
Wright, a 22-year-old Atlanta native who appears on Joe Sample’s latest disc, has a radiant presence. She tackled two of Holiday’s gloomier pieces, “I Cover the Waterfront” and “Don’t Explain,” with delicacy and despair.
The Broadway and Hollywood talent, though, delivered songs the way one expects Broadway and Hollywood talent to deliver standards. Dianne Reeves, who artistically heads the jazz department at the Bowl, spoke eloquently about Holiday’s interpretive skills but went on a most un-Holiday-like scat during “Comes Love.” Lou Rawls nailed the Holiday phrasing on “All of Me,” but otherwise hammed up his perfs. Tom Wopat and Le DeLaria delivered wholly unsubtle readings. And Oleta Adams spent a bit too much time explaining how the lyric of “Good Morning Heartache” couldn’t further from her own personal truth. Good as she was, there was a lack of resonance in her delivery.
Trumpeter Terence Blanchard brought some humor to the nearly three-hour evening, as well as some well-placed solos. His saxophonist, Brice Winston, was too much of an over-the-top presence on his solos, displaying little of the gentle caress that marked the soloists who accompanied Holiday. String quartet benefited several performers, none more than Scott.
Show was a repeat of New York and Chicago programs, but the L.A. visit couldn’t be better timed: Holiday is on the cover of the current issue of the preeminent jazz publication Downbeat as Columbia/Legacy’s 10-CD set “Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933-1944)” was named best reissue of the year; and on Tuesday, Columbia/Legacy will reissue three Holiday albums — “A Musical Romance” with Lester Young, “Blue Billie” and “Lady Day Swings.” Concert attracted a healthy crowd and was treated to some well-executed readings from Maya Angelou and Holiday’s autobiography between songs.