Monday, July 10, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1027: Billie Holiday

I’ve been checking out a bunch of metal this week, as I reacquaint myself with what’s been going on in heavy music for the past couple of decades. It has been a welcome return to one of my earliest musical loves. I don’t’ like it all, but I like enough of it to know that there will be more metal entering my collection soon.

The early favourite is Opeth, who really blew me away. I’m looking forward to hearing more from them in the near future…on my stereo.

But now, because variety is the spice of life, some jazz.

Disc 1027 is…The Quintessential Billie Holiday Volume 9
Artist: Billie Holiday

Year of Release: 1991 but featuring music from 1940-1942

What’s up with the Cover? Not much going on here - Billie Holiday and a microphone. As Bad Santa teaches us, “they can’t all be winners, kid”.

How I Came To Know It: I learned about Billie Holiday through a woman I used to date who was a big fan. The first time I heard Billie was on a record player at two in the morning, which is exactly how you should hear her. When I saw they had put out a 9-disc set of her music I grabbed the best three I could and hoped for the best. This was one of them.

How It Stacks Up:  This is a compilation album, so by the rules of the Odyssey it doesn’t stack up.

Ratings: “Best ofs” and compilations don’t get ratings, since they’re not really albums.

There is something magical about being able to enjoy music recorded 75 years ago. That magical experience is helped along considerably when your guide is Ms. Billie Holiday.

Holiday is one of history’s great vocalists, and her combination of sweet, sad and world-worn is like a warm bath you can slip into and let your mind wander. This music is pretty far from my wheelhouse (I’m not much for jazz) but there were very few songs on this record I disliked, and a lot of that success was Holiday’s delivery.

She’s better when she’s being a bit sad, and when she sang upbeat tracks like “Let’s Do It” I found myself wishing instead for Ella Fitzgerald’s playful tones. That is the only time that happened though, and on every other song I’d take Billie singing these tunes over anyone else that was offered. This is particularly true on wistful tracks like “Georgia on My Mind” that feel like they were written for her and only her. Sorry, Ray Charles. This is just…better.

Holiday follows that classic with the sexy “Romance in the Dark,” which she delivers with an aggressive jump on the beat, brazen and unapologetic. The song also has a nice piano solo and a bit of saxophone, but at a running time of 2:12 not too much of either.

Most of the recordings on this compilation are around three minutes long, which is just enough time for Holiday to cast a spell, play a little with the melody and let some of the fine jazz musicians playing with her have a responsibly brief solo. I think I’d like jazz a lot more if it was always this restrained.

And so it was that I found myself looking up who played on “Romance in the Dark” only to find the people who’d written the liner notes complaining the song wasn’t longer. Different strokes for different folks, I suppose.

One song I didn’t love was “Mandy Is Two” a song about a toddler who is proud because she’s a big girl now (evidence: she knows her alphabet and can tie her own shoes). In the song Mom is sad to see her daughter growing up so quickly. Seriously, Mom – the kid is two, she’s a long way from grown up. The whole thing just felt like the world’s worst conversation to get trapped in at some society dinner party. “Ooh – did you hear that Mandy knows all her ABC’s?” “Ooh – you don’t say! That’s marvelous!”


Much better was the classic “God Bless the Child,” a song about child poverty. Hearing Holiday sing:

“Yes, the strong gets more
While the weak ones fade
Empty pockets don't ever make the grade.”

Is a heartbreaking observation, and a hell of a lot more compelling than whether Mandy can tie her shoes.

Holiday does a fine job of walking the line between romance and social commentary. The musical interludes on this album are beautiful and well-placed as well, but the star is Billie Holiday’s voice, which reaches across three-quarters of a century to pull your heart right out of your chest. 75 years from now she’ll still be doing it to a whole new generation of listeners.

Best tracks: Georgia On My Mind, Romance in the Dark, God Bless the Child, Am I Blue?, Solitude, I Cover the Waterfront

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