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Monday, November 21, 2011

Billie Holiday: Lady Day: The Master Takes And Singles


CD I: 1) I Wished On The Moon; 2) What A Little Moonlight Can Do; 3) Miss Brown To You; 4) If You Were Mine; 5) These 'N' That 'N' Those; 6) You Let Me Down; 7) Spreadin' Rhythm Around; 8) Life Begins When You're In Love; 9) It's Like Reaching For The Moon; 10) These Foolish Things; 11) I Cried For You; 12) Did I Remember?; 13) No Re­grets; 14) Summertime; 15) Billie's Blues; 16) A Fine Romance; 17) One, Two, Button Your Shoe; 18) Easy To Love; 19) The Way You Look Tonight; 20) Pennies From Heaven; CD II: 1) That's Life I Guess; 2) I Can't Give You Anything But Love; 3) I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm; 4) He Ain't Got Rhythm; 5) This Year's Kisses; 6) Why Was I Born?; 7) I Must Have That Man; 8) The Mood That I'm In; 9) You Showed Me The Way; 10) My Last Affair; 11) Moanin' Low; 12) Where Is The Sun?; 13) Let's Call The Whole Thing Off; 14) They Can't Take That Away From Me; 15) Don't Know If I'm Comin' Or Goin'; 16) I'll Get By; 17) Mean To Me; 18) Foolin' Myself; 19) Easy Living; 20) I'll Never Be The Same; CD III: 1) Me, Myself And I; 2) A Sailboat In The Moonlight; 3) Without Your Love; 4) Trav'lin' All Alone; 5) He's Funny That Way; 6) Nice Work If You Can Get It; 7) Things Are Looking Up; 8) My Man; 9) Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man; 10) When You're Smiling; 11) On The Sentimental Side; 12) When A Woman Loves A Man; 13) You Go To My Head; 14) I'm Gonna Lock My Heart (And Throw Away The Key); 15) The Very Thought Of You; 16) I Can't Get Started; 17) More Than You Know; 18) Sugar; 19) Long Gone Blues; 20) Some Other Spring; CD IV: 1) Them There Eyes; 2) Swing, Brother, Swing; 3) Night And Day; 4) The Man I Love; 5) Body And Soul; 6) Falling In Love Again; 7) Laughing At Life; 8) Time On My Hands; 9) St. Louis Blues; 10) Loveless Love; 11) Let's Do It; 12) Georgia On My Mind; 13) All Of Me; 14) God Bless The Child; 15) Am I Blue?; 16) I Cover The Waterfront; 17) Love Me Or Leave Me; 18) Gloomy Sunday; 19) It's A Sin To Tell A Lie; 20) Until The Real Thing Comes Along.

The Real Man, starting off his exploration of Lady Day's career, will, of course, want to own the expansive edition of The Complete Billie Holiday On Columbia: 10CDs that flush the archives out completely, with all the preserved alternate takes that allow The Real Man to explore every nook and notch in the Lady's deliveries. However, for the humble purposes of humble reviewing, this abbreviated 4-CD version will do nicely. Coming out something like six years after the com­plete edition (because, otherwise, how many people would be saving their money?), it simply contains what it says it contains — the master takes, originally released on the Brunswick and Vo­calion subdivisions of Columbia. And, unless you are a committed jazz historian, these 4 CDs are exactly what you are going to be listening to anyway.

How does one review Billie Holiday? Well, how does one write about vocal jazz in general? For the most part, one either doesn't, or does it in a somewhat condescending manner: jazz reviews are rarely satisfying for the «average customer», since most jazz reviewers tend to write from the «inside» perspective: either you «get it» and «are with us», in which case describing the music will be superfluous, or you «don't get it» and «are an outsider», in which case describing the mu­sic will be futile. Jazz people rarely bother with seductive advertising (to my big surprise, even more rarely than classical people — probably because jazz audiences are still a little bit more numerous. But don't worry, a few more years of Taylor Swift and that'll pass, too).

Anyway, while I have no plans of ever turning systematically to jazz reviews, Billie Holiday is one of those cherished exceptions, and I certainly have no intention to review her as a «jazz ar­tist», even though, technically, she sure wasn't a Delta blueswoman or a Nashville country prima­donna. On these 80 recordings that span the first decade of her career, she is frequently backed by some of the hottest players on the scene (Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Roy Eldridge, Lester Young, etc.), but each of the recordings still belongs to her and her only. In the definition of Billie as «vocal jazz» it is almost exclusively the «vocal» part that matters, and this is why she managed to serve as a role model for so many people, a lot of them having very little or nothing to do with «jazz» as a matter of fact.

Same goes for the material. All of her life, and never as faithfully as on these early Columbia sin­gles, Billie sang very little outside of the regular Tin Pan Alley stuff. And, as I have done this in many other places, I must repeat that «The Great American Songbook», per se, does very little for me. Safe, cuddly, monotonous, predictable, easy-going, overtly commercial stuff, you know how it goes — not denying the melodic talents of Irving Berlin or anything, but there has always been way too much yawn-inducing formula in that business. Not that I'm stating anything more revealing than a trivial fact here; however, another trivial fact is that most of these a-dollar-a-do­zen compositions were primarily intended as basic vehicles for interpreters. And of all the inter­preters, few could be bigger originals than Billie.

Because, really, leave it to Lady Day to take these mechanical constructions and treat them as hu­man product. Start off from the beginning: the 1935 recording of 'I Wished On The Moon'. Com­pare it with Bing Crosby's version from The Big Broadcast (same year). Now, who really needs to be told about the difference in attitudes? First time around, I hear a human being; second time around, I hear a trained mechanical songbird (no disrespect to Crosby — it takes lotsa time and skill to train a mechanical songbird, yet...). These days, we are accustomed to singers sounding as human beings, which is why the impact has worn off and may not be noticeable to those who only compare Billie with post-Billie. The simple fact is that, without Billie, there would be no post-Billie. The world needed a Billie, and it was so fantastic that along came Billie.

Although the liner notes to the album try to painstakingly differentiate between the «great», the «good», and the «so-so» on these 4 CDs, I am in no position to do that. I certainly feel the differ­ence when it comes to those few cases in which Billie also comes forward as a songwriter. On 'Billie's Blues', her first official credit, she does not really do a lot of writing: the song is a generic piece of «urban blues», however, what makes it special is the fact that it is, indeed, the only true piece of blues on the record, and, while it does not immediately make Billie into Bessie's heir, it pushes her personality into the stale urban blues formula, revitalizing it for the future. Later on, she repeats the same formula (but in a slower, more languid manner) on 'Long Gone Blues' (from 1939). And then, her third and last credit on the album is 'God Bless The Child' from 1941, which, even on its own, has far more credibility than all the other songs on here — and, in the hands of the author, becomes a moody, bitter masterpiece for eternity.

As for the rest... highlights, lowlights, who cares? Some songs are catchier and more playful than others, some moodier, some more romantic, some have pleasant trumpet solos or piano intros, some do not. Since this is only the first decade, Billie's voice is represented here in its freshest and purest form, without the crackling, hissing, and «white noise» it would be saddled with later on, as her health quickly faded. Not everyone finds this an advantage — since Billie never was a «master technician» in the first place, having next to no range and a rather limited set of moods to sing in, some people actually prefer her «struggling» with the singing, believing that it adds even more «humanity» to the overall effect. That may be so, but, on the other hand, the neophyte will certainly find more pleasure in listening to a healthy young woman than a raspy wreck, and on no other collection will you find Billie's voice in as great a condition as here.

And that voice? Take another comparison: Annette Hanshaw's 'I Must Have That Man' from 1928 with Billie's version that came almost a decade later. Both are fine takes, but Hanshaw's is clearly following the lyrics: the tone is delicate, but firm and stern, closely matching the message of the title. Billie sings the same words, but she is not going for any sort of explicit «toughness». Liste­ners could be foolish enough to suggest that she simply does not pay attention to the lyrics, sing­ing everything in the only way her limited possibilities allow her to sing — and they may be right about the limited possibilities, but that is exactly what is so clever about the whole thing: try, somehow, to wiggle it out — to play the tough girl with all the frailty that you can muster. The ef­fect is intriguing, paradoxical, and, most importantly, it works. I don't know how or why, but that is what's usually being referred to as «magic», and, for the moment at least, I am quite con­tent with that explanation.

«Reviewing» the individual songs one by one is an obvious waste of time and space: just get this whole thing, in toto. Nobody is forcing you to sit through all the 80 tracks in one sitting, but even if this ever happens, there is nothing painful in the experience — as monotonous as the atmos­phere is, I cannot imagine Lady Day's singing become annoying: somehow, she's got this perfect vocal setting that does not «overdo» or «underdo» one single parameter. Getting tired of Janis Joplin's screaming, of Joan Baez' shredding, of Ella Fitzgerald's rough-and-toughness, of Nancy Sinatra's «look-at-me-I'm-so-hip-to-the-Sixties-ness» — that I understand. But tired of Billie Ho­liday? That's, like, tired of living. Thumbs up.

Check "Lady Day: The Master Takes & Singles" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Lady Day: The Master Takes & Singles" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. Agreed with everything you said. Well, maybe I have a little more tolerance than you for the Great American Songbook (whaddya know, I even dig Sinatra's 50's albums), but there's no denying Billie took that whole thing to a completely different level.
    And I agree that it is impossible to tire of Billie's singing. She's one of the few singers where I could sit through 80 tracks in a row, or even just the same track 80 times over, and never get tired. The only other singer I know of who would match this ridiculous level of "likeability" is probably Mississippi John Hurt, whom also, despite obviously singing very different songs, shares some of the same basic approach to singing. Feeling over technique, gentle, friendly and intelligent, but definitely "homegrown", every subtle twist and turn simultaneously concealing and revealing years of sorrows and pleasures (more the later for Hurt than Billie I guess).

  2. Anton, there is absolutely no shame in digging Sinatra's 50's albums. The man was also a marvelous interpreter, and when paired with Nelson Riddle's arrangements it was bliss. Kinds ironic that when he was signed to Capitol it was seen as risky because after his "pop idol" phase he was thought of as a has-been!