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José James: Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday

Mark F. Turner By

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There are many reasons why singer Billie Holiday is so admired—her captivating beauty, crafted phrasing, and the singular way she imbued emotion through each note. Yet the jazz legend known as "Lady Day" not only sung the blues, she lived it. In a storied life filled with heartaches, hardships and personal demons that included a long struggle with substance abuse, she eloquently articulated and expressed many of those sentiments in albums such as Lady Sings the Blues (1956, Verve) and enduring songs like "God Bless the Child" and "Lover Man." In celebration of her 100th birthday—April 7th 1915—singer José James provides a heartfelt and engaging homage to his "musical mother" with Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday.

James's rising career has shown impressive versatility drawing from R&B, Hip Hop, Indie pop and electronic music; influences heard in 2014's While You Were Sleeping (Blue Note). Yet make no mistake; he's proven his merit as a jazz singer in The Dreamer (Brownswood, 2008). His burgeoning love for Billie Holiday came early in life as he recalls, "I discovered Billie during a difficult period of my teenage years...and as much as I loved Nirvana, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest, her music spoke to me on a much deeper level."

With his smoky baritone and elegant phraseology, James is backed by a superb trio of jazz stars—pianist Jason Moran, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Eric Harland—who each recalls the extraordinary vibe during the recording session, in the release's video album trailer. While it's near impossible to channel the true essence of Billie Holiday the trio's consummate musicianship and singer's heartfelt handling of the revered material makes this a rewarding listening experience.

The straight forward yet fresh approach to these classics plays out well and while there are a few artistic liberties taken, they simply enhance the recording's deep aesthetic of music, vocals, and lyrics. When James breathes into the timeless "Good Morning Heartache" his voice articulates the feelings of a lover who's all too familiar with loss. Moran's empathetic arrangement of "Body and Soul" is similarly fascinating; the perfect balance of quietude, exploration and James's honey toned words. Additional highlights include a rapturous version of "Tenderly" and duologue between James and Moron in "I Thought About You" with a creative interlude and soulful refrain at the song's end.

The program concludes with one of Holiday's most remembered songs, "Strange Fruit." Its lyrics originated from a poem written by New York teacher and writer Abel Meeropol in the 1930's; an anti-lynching protest inspired by a photograph he had seen of an African American hanging in the South. It was recorded and sung by Holiday in 1939.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.


James adds a unique spin and performs the work a cappella, similar to a Negro Spiritual or African chant, threaded by a loop of soulful moans and harmonies as he beautifully sings the haunting verses which are still relevant today. Among the numerous Billie Holiday centennial celebrations, concerts and recordings, James's Yesterday I Had the Blues is an excellent tribute.

Track Listing: Good Morning Heartache; Body and Soul; Fine and Mellow; I Thought About You; What a Little Moonlight Can Do; Tenderly; Lover Man; God Bless the Child; Strange Fruit.

Personnel: José James: vocals; Jason Moran: piano; John Patitucci: bass; Eric Harland: drums.

Title: Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Blue Note Records

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