BILLIE HOLIDAY: THE COMMODORE MASTER TAKES (1939-1944; 2000)
1) Strange Fruit; 2) Yesterdays; 3) Fine And Mellow; 4) I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues; 5) How Am I To Know?; 6) My Old Flame; 7) I'll Get By; 8) I Cover The Waterfront; 9) I'll Be Seeing You; 10) I'm Yours; 11) Embraceable You; 12) As Time Goes By; 13) He's Funny That Way; 14) Lover, Come Back To Me; 15) Billie's Blues; 16) On The Sunny Side Of The Street.
It almost goes without saying that this here is the most important batch of tunes in Billie history (and a fantastic choice for a first-time introduction), and that the importance is mainly due to the presence of 'Strange Fruit'. It goes without further saying that, in order to fully appreciate the impact of the song, one would have to stick around in 1939, a time when it took real guts to perform this kind of material (and, indeed, Billie was genuinely afraid of singing it at first). But if the tune's direct shock impact has — thank God! — gradually dissipated over the years, this original recording has lost none of its original smoky mystique.
In fact, on a gut level I do not even associate it with the specific issue of Southern lynching (how could I, without ever learning the peculiarities of rural life racism?); all I know is that Billie is impersonating a sibyl here, drawing out the clumsy syllables in a state of trance, in a semi-dazed, semi-stoned manner, but still realizing, somewhere deep in the subconscious, that something important and devastating is coming out of her throat. Then, that final "bitter... crop!" escapes like the last agonizing wail of a brought down animal — a far cry from the pretty, but «conventional» coda flourishes she'd previously given the world within Columbia's walls.
It was indeed a song like no other, and, whatever one might say, it is a standout in her catalog that has no equals — not just because of a rare case of real social turbulence reflected in the lyrics, but also because she rose so admirably to the occasion. However, the brilliance of the song and the particular performance should not, by any means, obscure the brilliance — and importance — of the other 15 tunes on here: three recorded on the same session of April 20, 1939, and twelve more cut at several dates in March/April, 1944. Billie's collaboration with Commodore Records did not take long — first time simply because Columbia refused to accept 'Strange Fruit', second time in a brief interim between the lady's time on Columbia and Decca — but it turned over quite an important page in her life.
Essentially, Columbia Records had Billie play a «significant bit part» in upbeat, stompy big-band entertainment, with loud brass, rousing tempos, and lots of soloing, in between which she would barely have time to throw in a verse or two. It was good, because the bands were good, but it certainly did not offer the proper support for the talent. The tunes on Commodore, on the other hand, even if they did not always feature a significantly smaller number of players, are overall more quiet, relaxed, and give Billie more room to sing, meditate, and shine. Already on the first session, 'Strange Fruit' is augmented with 'Fine And Mellow', another one of Billie's «originals» — in actuality, a generic urban blues set to new lyrics, but, considering how rarely Columbia let Billie engage in competition with Bessie Smith, it is telling that Commodore gave her this very chance on her very first outing with the label.
It is fun to engage in comparison here. For instance, the original Columbia recording of 'I'll Get By', with more than a minute of trumpet solos before Billie comes in — and an almost immediate entrance on the Commodore version, with very brief guitar and piano solos in the middle. The nearly rhythmless (next to the Columbia version), bass-less 'I Cover The Waterfront'. 'He's Funny That Way' recast as a dark, melancholic late-night piano ballad instead of a jolly, careless swing like it used to be. And so on — although at least half of the selections on this disc were all new, never recorded by Billie on any of her Columbia dates. ('How Am I To Know?', with its spine-tingling "Ohhh..." rhyming with the title, is a particular highlight).
What makes this short Commodore collection so uniquely valuable is that it represents this perfect sort of crossroads that is likely to satisfy everyone. The Columbia recordings may seem too «gay», drowning Billie out in a swarm of swing entertainers. The Decca recordings may seem too sappy because of all the strings. The Verve period is where the lady started going hoarse. All of these «defects» may be easily overlooked, and, in fact, many people do not consider them defects at all. But these sixteen tracks, spearheaded by 'Strange Fruit', are pure, blameless perfection. Kudos to Milt Gabler for producing the stuff and showing Billie in the most suitable light anyone could ever suit to her. Thumbs up without further questions.
(PS: the review is based on the single-disc edition, but there is also The Complete Commodore Recordings, with multiple additional alternate takes spread over two CDs. Inescapable for the completist, but, given my acquaintance with The Complete Billie Holiday On Verve, must be a bit of an unnecessary overkill for the layman).
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