Billie Holiday: Four Classic Albums Plus
Four Classic Albums
Back in the 1950s, when the American people were buying television sets and driving gas guzzlers on brand new superhighways under the threat of nuclear war, singer Billie Holiday was still turning out fine performances on record and on stage, defying a lot of expectations raised by her wayward lifestyle. Holiday only had a few years leftshe died in 1959but continued performing right up to the end. Her most influential recordings were behind her and her last recordings weren't perfect, but producer Norman Granz was able to get a few more small gems out of her, proving that the right song and the right supporting musicians can make up for a lot of vocal shortcomings. This 2xCD reissue compiles three studio dates from the mid 1950s and two live datesone from the Newport festival (half of which originally had fellow singer Ella Fitzgerald on it, not included here), the other from Jazz At the Philharmonic (here in complete form).
First, the studio dates: Music For Torching, Velvet Moods (both 1955) and Body And Soul (1957). By this time, Holiday's vocal chops were beginning to wear out, her voice not as strong and sure as it once was. By listening to the two 1955 sessions and comparing them to the 1957 session, you can clearly hear how quickly the ghosts began to creep in. However maligned these recordings might be by some, Holiday could still sing better than most, her sense of rhythm still mostly intact, her unusual timbre still there (perhaps even a bit more idiosyncratic with age) and still able to tell the story of any song. And what songs she was given for these sessions: "Body and Soul," "Darn That Dream," "Come Rain Or Come Shine"there isn't a dud in the bunch.
Although these are Holiday's records, they are very much jazz records at the same time. Granz wisely surrounds her with stellar players, some of which were her contemporaries (saxophonists Benny Carter and Ben Webster); others who surely learned a thing or two from her classic sides (pianist Jimmy Rowles, guitarist Barney Kessel). All of these guys could have made a terrific record without Holiday, but add the perfect counterpart, trading verses and solo space with the star. Kessel in particular makes important contributions to the sessions, throwing in twangy licks and tasteful solos to compliment the brilliant soloing from the others. Holiday was really one of the vocalists who determined how small group jazz complements a singer (and vice versa) and, while the singing is a little ragged, these recordings don't disappoint.
The live dates are an interesting assortment. The Newport set, from 1957, features one of Holiday's best accompanists in pianist Mal Waldron, along with Joe Benjamin on bass and Jo Jones on drums. Holiday's melancholy, largely absent from the studio dates, is in full display in languid renditions of "Willow Weep For Me" and "My Man," amongst others of similar ilk. No one sings about bad relationships like Holiday, and you can hear an even grimmer series from three Philharmonic concerts from further back in the mid 1940s.
Holiday's storytelling is evident hereon "The Man I Love" she sounds as if she's trying to convince us that her lover is truly a great guy; she follows with "Gee Baby Ain't I Good To You," trying to convince the same louse to stick around. There's also a live version of "Strange Fruit," a very personal song for Holiday and one of the most harrowing songs ever written.
The problem with most of the Philharmonic recordings is the over-crowded bandstand. Despite heavyweights like trumpeter Howard McGhee and saxophonists Illinois Jacquet and, even, Lester Young, with four horns all soloing at the same time, some parts are a discordant mess, especially when compared to the elegant Newport set. Holiday deserves all the space she can get, and even a series of songs with Young pass by with the sense that things could have been better with a little more direction and restraint.
Sadly, Holiday would pass on a few years later, but her legacy and fame were already cemented in place. With her best days behind her, Holiday wasn't always up to the task of turning in a great performance. However, her last few records are solid efforts, and a worthy end to a terrifically influential career.
Tracks: CD1: Body and Soul; They Can't Take That Away From Me; Darn That Dream; Let's Call the Whole Thing Off; Comes Love; Gee, Baby Ain't I Good To You; Embraceable You; Moonlight In Vermont; Willow Weep For Me; My Man; Lover, Come Back To Me; Lady Sings the Blues; What A Little Moonlight Can Do; Body and Soul; Strange Fruit; Travelin' Light; He's Funny That Way; The Man I Love; Gee, Baby Ain't I Good To You; All of Me; Billie's Blues. CD2: It Had to Be You; Come Rain or Come Shine; I Don't Want to Cry Anymore; I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You; A Fine Romance; Gone With the Wind; I Get a Kick Out of You; Isn't This A Lovely Day; Prelude to a Kiss; When Your Lover Has Gone; Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone; Nice Work If You Can Get It; I've Got a Right To Sing the Blues; What's New; I Hadn't Anyone Till You; Everything I Have Is Yours; Fine and Mellow.
Collective Personnel: Billie Holiday: vocals; Jimmy Rowles: piano; Barney Kessel: guitar; Ben Webster: tenor sax; Harry "Sweets" Edison: trumpet; Alvin Stoller, Larry Bunker: drums; Red Mitchell: bass; Howard McGhee: trumpet; Willie Smith: alto sax; Illinois Jacquet, Wardell Gray: tenor sax; Milt Raskin: piano; Charles Mingus: bass; Davie Coleman: drums; Kenny Kersey: piano, Carlie Drayton: bass; Trummy Young: trombone: Joe Guy: trumpet; Georgie Auld: alto sax; Lester Young: tenor sax; Tiny Grimes: guitar; Al McKibbon: bass; J.C. Heard: drums; Benny Carter: alto sax; Mal Waldron: piano; Joe Benjamin: bass; Jo Jones: drums.