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Extended Analysis

Billie Holiday: Lady Day - The Master Takes and Singles

By Published: November 9, 2007
Billie Holiday
Lady Day - The Master Takes And Singles
Columbia Records

It's fitting that singer Billie Holiday began the most celebrated part of her career with Columbia in 1933, when the country was in the throes of the depression, and ended it in 1942, when the world was gripped by war. Her anguished delivery fit in perfectly with the times. As she projected the torments of her life through music, she gave us an escape from our own troubles, by reminding us of how bad life could get. Regardless, Holiday's sublime Columbia recordings, which originally appeared on the Brunswick, Vocalion and Okeh labels, are among the true treasures of jazz.

The complete recordings were released a few years ago in a mammoth box set. This four CD collection pares the material down considerably, although the producers have not just taken the cream of the crop. In the tradition of many "warts and all Columbia sets, this one features the master takes and singles released during the period. Without any true explanation of what this means (the remaining tracks from the original set weren't alternates) this gives a more complete picture of the recording landscape of the time.

The majority of Holiday's records during the time were made for jukeboxes, and thus follow a fairly predictable format in presentation and length. In addition, almost everyone at the time had to record some inferior material, and Holiday was no exception; for every "Night And Day there are at least two songs that weren't worth much more than the paper that they were printed on.

But what Holiday and company were able to do with just about everything they recorded was to work within its limitations and create pure magic. John Hammond, the producer of these sessions, was able to raid the famous big bands of their worthiest performers when they came to town and hustle them into the studio. Thus these records become a veritable Who's Who of performers in the jazz world: clarinetists Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, trumpeters Charlie Shavers, Roy Eldridge and Bunny Berigan, saxophonist Johnny Hodges...the list goes on and on.

All of these great men were forced to make their presence known quickly within the brief recording time, and their solos are models of restraint, efficiency and melody. Even insignificant material like "What A Little Moonlight Can Do becomes a masterpiece as those involved work creatively to rise above the material, or at least transform it into something larger than it was before.

Much has been made of Holiday's excellent sense of timing and melody, both of which turned a rather unattractive voice into a superb jazz instrument. And instrument it is, for her singing is structured and delivered like a solo. Listen to "Night And Day for instance, and notice how Holiday overcomes her shortcomings to sing a difficult song into pathos. Or better yet try singing along and you'll get an excellent lesson on rhythmic and melodic invention, proving how she can swing a song better than you ever could. She receives top-notch accompaniment from the various ensembles and, of course, saxophonist Lester Young is present on several tracks.

The recordings come from collections of 78 rpm discs, and from that standpoint are remarkably clean. There's nary a pop nor crackle here, and for the most part, the shortcomings of the original recordings are largely absent. Either the 78s were in terrific shape to begin with, or the engineers have done a meticulous restoration job (probably a little of both).

Obviously the older, bigger, box set Lady Day (Columbia, 2001) is the definitive Holiday collection, but this new set is a more affordable option. With excellent essays by Michaels Brooks and Gary Giddins and detailed analysis of each track, this set is a fantastic collection.

Tracks: CD1: I Wished On The Moon; What A Little Moonlight Can Do; Miss Brown To You; If You Were Mine; These 'n' That 'n' Those; You Let Me Down; Spreadin' Rhythm Around; Life Begins When You're In Love; It's Like Reaching For The Moon; These Foolish Things; I Cried For You; Did I Remember?; No Regrets; Summertime; Billie's Blues; A Fine Romance; One, Two, Button Your Shoe; Easy To Love; The Way You Look Tonight; Pennies From Heaven. CD2: That's Life I Guess; I Can't Give You Anything But Love; I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm; He Ain't Got Rhythm; This Year's Kisses; Why Was I Born?; I Must Have That Man; The Mood That I'm In; You Showed Me The Way; My Last Affair; Moanin' Low; Where Is The Sun?; Let's Call The Whole Thing Off; They Can't Take That Away From Me; Don't Know If I'm Comin' or Goin'; I'll Get By; Mena To Me; Foolin' Myself; Easy Living; I'll Never Be the Same. CD3: Me, Myself, And I; A Sailboat In The Moonlight; Without Your Love; Trav'lin' All Alone; He's Funny That Way; Nice Work If You Can Get It; Things Are Looking Up; My Man; Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man; When You're Smiling; On The Sentimental Side; When A Woman Loves A Man; You Go To My Head; I'm Gonna Lock My Heart; The Very Thought Of You; I Can't Get Started; More Than You Know; Sugar; Long Gone Blues; Some Other Spring. CD4: Them There Eyes; Swing, Brother, Swing; Night And Day; The Man I Love; Body And Soul; Falling In Love Again; Laughing At Life; Time On My Hands; St. Louis Blues; Loveless Love; Let's Do It; Georgia On My Mind; All Of Me; God Bless The Child; Am I Blue?; I Cover The Waterfront; Love Me Or Leave Me; Gloomy Sunday; It's A Sin To Tell A Lie; Until The Real Thing Comes Along.

Personnel: Billie Holiday: vocals; with various personnel including Roy Eldridge: trumpet; Benny Goodman: clarinet; Ben Webster: tenor saxophone; John Kirby: bass; Chu Berry: tenor saxophone; Teddy Wilson: piano; Dave Barbour: guitar; Cozy Cole: drums; Johnny Hodges: alto saxophone; Bunny Berigan: trumpet; Artie Shaw: clarinet; Buck Clayton: trumpet; Lester Young: tenor saxophone; Walter Page: bass; Jo Jones: drums; Cootie Williams: trumpet; Freddie Green: guitar.

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