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Monday, January 16, 2012

Billie Holiday: Music For Torching


1) It Had To Be You; 2) Come Rain Or Come Shine; 3) I Don't Want To Cry Anymore; 4) I Don't Stand A Ghost Of A Chance With You; 5) A Fine Romance; 6) Gone With The Wind; 7) I Get A Kick Out Of You; 8) Isn't This A Lovely Day.

Groping blindly in the dark, perhaps, but this session from August 1955 seems to me to find Bil­lie in a slightly better state than her previous one, and the entire record is a highlight of her last years on Clef/Verve. All of the material, with the exception of 'A Fine Romance' that she did ear­lier for Columbia, is recorded for the first time, even if The Songbook is still the only available source. Of the session players, only Benny Carter stands out on alto saxophone; the rest provide solid backing rather than counterpoints. But that's fine: on this record, Billie had no desperate need of any counterpoints. She carries it all with bravery and finesse.

We get as far into the past here as 'It Had To Be You', which was originally recorded in 1924 by several people, including Marion Harris; but in order to appreciate Billie's version, it is, of course, advisable to select something glitzy in contrast – the Barbra Streisand take, perhaps? Or, if this seems unjust and skewed, we could do with respectable earlier interpretations, such as Betty Hut­ton's. But they are all normal in their emotional impact. Billie, on the other hand, with each pas­sing year seems to have been descending into an emotional world all her own — so much so that some might fall for the trap and declare this here singing cold, perfunctory, and passionless.

That would be a wrong move — if anything, her purely technical tricks over the years became more diverse and subtle. The ever-slowing tempos give her plenty of space to stretch out the syl­lables, practice that little vibrato, and control her «creaky» and «breathy» levels with the same precision that a Jimi Hendrix might control his whammy bar. And it may be that I am writing about it in this particular review simply because she is so perfectly captured on this album, too: for once, her voice looms large and heavy over all the instruments without any distracting echo effects. Then again, I may be just imagining things to fill up space.

Anyway, as usual, there are no high- or lowlights, and the album is quite aptly titled, even if, up­on second thought, something like 80% of all of Billie's recordings are certified «torch songs». (May also be the reason why 'A Fine Romance', with its slightly cheerier attitude and faster tem­po, sits here somewhat uncomfortably among all the gloom – but it's still a first-rate recording). Hence, another thumbs up, and, in addition to it all, finally a version of 'Come Rain Or Come Shine' that one can always throw on without a hint of embarrassment. Too bad Billie didn't have the time to record all the popular songs of the first half of the XXth century – that would be a great excuse for burning up so much schlocky vinyl.

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