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Monday, January 2, 2012

Billie Holiday: At Jazz At The Philharmonic


BILLIE HOLIDAY: AT JAZZ AT THE PHILHARMONIC (1954)

1) Body And Soul; 2) Strange Fruit; 3) Trav'lin' Light; 4) He's Funny That Way; 5) The Man I Love; 6) Gee Baby, Ain't I Good To You; 7) All Of Me; 8) Billie's Blues.

Although this album was not released until 1954, the actual recordings date from 1945 and 1946, when Billie was an active participator in Norman Granz's «Jazz At The Philharmonic» touring program (and, since Granz was also the founder of Clef Records, to which Billie was signed in the 1950s, it was only a matter of time before he would make these recordings public on his own label). The actual dates are February 12, 1945 (first two songs) and October 3, 1946 (second two songs) at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles; and June 3, 1946 at Carnegie Hall for the last four songs. All of the material has now been included on the Complete Verve boxset, including a couple more live tracks of very scratchy quality from 1946, and four more live performances of far better quality from 1947.

Considering that there are very few live-not-in-the-studio recordings from Billie at all, this is a record of historical importance; considering that these are the earliest available live recordings from Billie, it is a record of tremendous historical importance. Considering that the second track on here is 'Strange Fruit', it is also a record of tense curiosity: how does it go with the audience? are there any traces of nervousness in Billie's voice (other than a couple of precautionary coughs during the piano intro)? Not to worry: the applause is as strong as ever, and the singing matches the original studio recording fairly closely.

The setlist, as we can see, is completely standard; the only «new» tune, 'Trav'lin' Light', was ori­ginally recorded by Billie for Paul Whiteman's big band in 1942, and re-arranged here as a mini­malistic lounge ballad, with no one but Ken Kersey at the piano — another case of a «jazz stan­dard» on which Lady Day was but a bit player transformed into a vulnerable confession, spotlight on the frail human soul and all that.

Unfortunately, live recording was still new and inexperienced in the 1940s, so there is no getting away from the «thin» quality of the vocals; hopefully, this will be nobody's introduction to Billie, or one might subconsciously develop an impression of the lady as a «whiner». Naturally, JATP is for the seasoned admirer rather than the novice. But, as the only complete live album to capture her in full control of her powers, it is at least a unique technical phenomenon, if not necessarily a unique emotional experience.

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