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Monday, March 5, 2012

Billie Holiday: Last Recording


BILLIE HOLIDAY: LAST RECORDING (1959)

1) All Of You; 2) Sometimes I'm Happy; 3) You Took Advantage Of Me; 4) When It's Sleepy Time Down South; 5) There'll Be Some Changes Made; 6) 'Deed I Do; 7) Don't Worry 'bout Me; 8) All The Way; 9) Just One More Chance; 10) It's Not For Me To Say; 11) I'll Never Smile Again; 12) Baby, Won't You Please Come Back.

It might actually be a good idea to forget about this album entirely, and let history record that it was Lady In Satin that served as Billie's swan song; well, technically it did, since this «follow-up», originally titled just Billie Holiday, was not released until a few days (or weeks) after the lady's death in July 1959 (for the record, from complications brought about by liver cirrhosis, rather than the stereotypical «overdosing» — not that she never overdosed, of course).

The sessions, held in March 1959, were again directed by Ray Ellis, although this time, the or­chestra took a few steps back, letting a jazz band in. As much as we could all be skeptical about Ray's orchestral sentimentality clashing with Billie's style, I almost sort of miss it on this album. Clearly, the idea was to record something a little lighter, poppier, more upbeat and perhaps even optimistic. And maybe — maybe — Billie was even up for it: at the very least, her voice notice­ably crackles less and sounds a little more vibrant and ringing throughout the sessions, somehow almost free of the «old woman rasp» so frequently catching up with her on the last Verve albums and on Lady In Satin.

But it does not sound very natural or believable, this attempt at previewing the sound and style of Nancy Wilson. At least, not in the overall context. Billie's voice and strength may have been fail­ing in the Fifties, yet she and her producers countered this with finding the right mood for those levels — all that quiet nocturnal melancholy for penthouse clients etc. Now, just as she was enter­ing the last months of her career, even if nobody knew it (but many still sensed it), Columbia tried to get her to cheer up again, right to the levels of twenty years ago. Even without all this knowledge, the fakeness of the effort shines through; with this knowledge, the album stirs up all sorts of unpleasant feelings, starting with pity and ending with disgust (or, rather, vice versa, be­cause the album opener, ʽAll Of Youʼ, beats all the other tracks in terms of upbeatness and happi­ness and sounds particularly skewed).

Of course, from a certain historical point of view, these sessions could have been a sort of «musi­cal therapy», and if they made Billie happy for three days in the midst of the misery, that is just good. And it would be ridiculous to say that these performances are «wooden» or «emotionless»: Billie never ever recorded if she didn't feel like recording, as all the huge archive boxsets prove to us these days. But for the «listener», not the «biographer», this Last Recording is useless. If you want a genuinely happy Billie, go for the early Columbia years; if you want a genuinely mise­rable Billie, go for Lady In Satin; if you live in a penthouse, go for the Verve collection. This record is just a collector's memento, little more, and, although it is not «awful» by any means, I still give it a thumbs down — the only explicit one in Lady Day's entire discography.

This pretty much completes the discography runthrough. In addition to the material collected on these LPs and later-issued boxsets, the archives contain numerous alternate takes, demos, etc., most of which you can find on even bigger boxsets, but I do not recommend going for «Complete Verve», etc., unless Billie is your life or unless you are attracted to the coolness of having these bulky objects gathering dust (and, perhaps, accumulating collectible value) on your shelves. It is a very good thing that they are available, though: they serve to emphasize Billie's legendary status and ensure a modest, but stable, level of popularity among future generations of listeners. At the expense of other, unjustly forgotten, legends, perhaps — yet why should we complain that, if there must be only one female jazz vocalist remembered from the pre-rock'n'roll era, it should be Bil­lie? She was not simply following the rules of the formula, nor was she setting them; all her life, she worked against the current, and the fact that for the most part she did so without out­stepping the limits of The Songbook only makes it more admirable. Like the Beatles in their pro­fessional sphere, or like Shakespeare in his, this is one hell of a legend to deserve «unforgettable» status, no matter how trite that may sound to hard-working connoisseurs of the genre.

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