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Billie Holiday: Billie Holiday Sings Standards

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No stars How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.

This collection of mostly gems from the great and influential singer who peaked in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s holds many pleasures: Holiday’s caressing, behind-the-beat swing with its great feeling of relaxation, and that quivering slide as her phrase ends; a great repertoire of songs from the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and their lesser peers, so that the sincerity of her interpretation, usually called on to make gold from garbage, finds material worthy of it; small-band interpretations (commonly three horns and four-piece rhythm) which personalize the swing era sound, rescuing it from the anonymity of the big bands; solos and fills by some of jazz’s greatest and most distinct instrumentalists, with beautiful work by Lester Young on tenor sax and clarinet, altoists Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter, clarinetist Benny Goodman, trumpeters Roy Eldridge and Buck Clayton, and pianist Teddy Wilson, among others. Six of the tracks include three-fourths of Count Basie’s “All-American Rhythm Section,” Freddie Green on guitar, Walter Page on bass and Jo Jones on drums, mostly with Teddy Wilson on piano; but almost all of the rhythm sections are smooth and tasty.

“The Very Thought Of You,” is a medium-tempo sampler of these pleasures, with some florid and harmonically astute piano from Margaret “Countess” Johnson in counterpoint to Holiday’s golden voice, and Buck Clayton on muted trumpet and Lester Young on clarinet splitting a solo chorus in front of Freddie Green’s airy guitar chords. “More Than You Know,” with trumpeter Roy Eldridge opening and closing with arresting theme statements, Holiday’s vocal commitment lending meaning to “Oh how I sigh, how I cry”, the smooth backing chords from the horns, pianist Teddy Wilson tinkling away in the background and then alternating lovely solos with altoist Benny Carter, is another beauty.

But you could pick almost any of these tracks for the spotlight. Unfortunately, there are a few clinkers: two ill-considered tracks originally from LADY IN SATIN, recorded in 1958 with the jazz band augmented by a string orchestra and Holiday’s wrecked voice turning her earlier vocal methods into self-parodying mannerisms; a 1936 version of the bluesy “Summertime” which seems inappropriate for Holiday; and it’s jarring. at the start of the otherwise typically perfect “Until the Real Thing Comes Along,” to hear her singing, “I’d be a nigger or a knave for you” — an unwelcome piece of Americana, that. Still, there is enough gorgeous music here, eighteen tracks in all, to make this a great sampler for someone who doesn’t already have the Columbia Holidays in their collection.

This review copyright (c) 1998 by Larry Koenigsberg.

Record Label: Columbia Records

Style: Straight-ahead/Mainstream


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