CD Review of Lady Day: Master Takes And Singles by Billie Holiday
Recommended if you like
Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Teddy Wilson
Billie Holiday:
Lady Day:
Master Takes And Singles

Reviewed by Mojo Flucke, PhD


Billie Holiday's voice is her story," Village Voice critic Gary Giddins writes in an essay included in the liner notes to this cream-skimming box. "It's the only one that counts, the one that can't be distorted by lovers or haters, exploiters or philanthropists, critics or fans." His words express perfectly the dichotomy of Lady Day's life. Her voice was golden and pure, while her life was anything but: Sometimes sad, sometimes politically charged on the front lines of segregation, sometimes higher than high as she set to wax some of the most influential performances of the body of recorded American music, period, never mind jazz...and then lower than low as she served jail time or lived under house arrest. The legend of Billie (born Eleanora Fagan in Baltimore, 1915) rises, falls, ebbs and flows like many jazz greats such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and everyone else who -- for a time -- vested in heroin a controlling interest in their lives.

But none of those external circumstances are relevant here. You've heard these songs, whether you're 18 or 88, over and over. As sonic wallpaper at the grocery store, on radio stations living in the dial's lower reaches, at jazz bars, in movie soundtracks, piped into elevators whose program managers' tastes are far too sophisticated for Muzak. You invent your own stories for them: Maybe a gal pal (or guy friend) likes the music when it comes time to turn the lights down low and make romance. Maybe a grandparent put these 78s on the Victrola when you were young and waxed nostalgic about life before the Sixties rewired American culture. Maybe you're a jazz fan and, tracing its history backward, stumbled upon the unforgettable, beautiful, expressive, and downright sensuous voice of Holiday and craved more.

However one comes across Billie Holiday, this box serves as the touchstone for exploration, comprising her Capitol work from 1933-44 and truncating the 10-CD 2001 box Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944. This set opens with the spritely 20-year-old singing "I Wished Upon the Moon" with pianist extraordinaire Teddy Wilson's sessioneers from 1935, and finishes with the last 78 released by Columbia -- long after Holiday bolted for Decca -- "Until the Real Thing Comes Along." That record reveals a singer in her prime who'd been through life's wringer a few times, her lilting, rich tone mellowed like the finest cabernet you can afford at the vintner's. In between, the ballads, the lush arrangements, the hot swing tunes, the Cole Porter compositions, the Lester Young sax solos, "Georgia on My Mind," it's all here. Longtime Holiday fans probably won't find much use for this box, as they've bought these widely available recordings over and over – unless, of course, they don't yet have a nice, clean remastering, which this box features thanks to 2007 technology.

The booklet features plenty of excellent biographical data, and multiple authors do their best to separate the perceived Holiday iconography -- and biographical, cinematic, and autobiographical fictions out there -- from the actual person, as well as pack as much session data in the allotted space as they can. That's one tall order, considering she was so iconographic and her life took so many turns for the worse. There exists a half-century's worth of distortions since she passed on to the great gig in the sky.

There's no denying that as Holiday moved into middle age, her life circumstances led to a deteriorating career -- and her voice suffered, too. The Capitol records clearly were seminal, and although what came after was beautiful in spots, these represent her best. The one knock on this set has nothing to do with the music or the song selection, but rather the tenor of the notes in the book, which tend toward the parochial in spots. The writers take shots at her later recorded output; the worse of these comes under Disc Three, track 13, "You Go to My Head": "When Billie began working with Norman Granz in the early '50s, he gave her songs like this to record all the time, but her treatment of them was only a shadow of what it could and should have been." So what, I say. Tell us about this cut, not stuff appearing on other labels outside the context of this box. We'll decide the value and significance of the Decca or Verve sides or whatever Holiday material we're gonna consume. Music, we like; inter-label marketing squabbles, we don't.

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