This album is an eye-opener, especially after all the negative press and peer criticism that followed the R&B queen's starring role in the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues
: her portrayal of America's foremost tragic jazz diva, as well as her impersonation of a music persona of cult-like proportions in the inner, exclusive circles of the "hip" jazz world.
But the evidence on this long-suppressed disc from the same era is compelling. Ross did her homework, absorbing everything about the Holiday style except the rough (admittedly expressive) grain of the voice, undoubtedly exacerbated by years of smoking, drinking and doping. Moreover, she goes directly to the heart of Billie Holidaythe most painful, heart-wrenching performance of them all: Jimmy Van Heusen's "But Beautiful," from Lady in Satin (Columbia, 1958).
The phrasing, breathing, inflections, and, above all, unforced elocution are Lady Day. No artist could replicate Holiday singing "it's a heartache anyway" the second time through the tunea moment when her heart and voice literally break, erasing the boundary between life and artbut Ross nonetheless shows that she "gets" it: she evokes the feeling and drama, wisely choosing not to reenact the excruciating moment itself.
"I Can't Get Started," "Easy Living," "Solitude," "He's Funny That Way," "T'ain't Nobody's Bizness" stand up right alongside the original performancesthe tempos, storytelling, and emotions are so convincing that you might think the vocalist is channeling her predecessor.
No wonder the studio execs thought better than to release this one right after it was madea "serious" project like this would very likely have made little money and put a damper on the mega-hits to follow in the singer's career. Still, Ross no doubt profited from the experience in non-material ways, learning how to communicate a song's essence as she had never done before.
Because there is some fluff on the album recalling the weaker moments of the movie, the songs cited above are the real essentials. The commercial glibness of some of the other performances serves as a reminder of how much better Ross could be when she put her whole self into challenging, even daunting material, literally becoming one with the tortured spirit and torturous consciousness of a creative genius.
Personnel: Diana Ross: vocals; Harry "Sweets" Edison: trumpet; other musicians unspecified; Gil Askey:
producer and conductor.