Saturday, May 7, 2022

CD Odyssey Disc 1557: Billie Holiday

Today we get one of the CD Odyssey’s most uncommon sightings…a jazz review. Do not be alarmed, however. There is enough swing and easy listening mixed in to keep it enjoyable.

Disc 1557 is…. The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol. 4

Artist: Billie Holiday

Year of Release: 1988 but featuring music from 1937

What’s up with the Cover? Lady Day herself, clearly soaking in whatever tune she’s about to add her voice to. I’m often disappointed in what modern artists wear on stage – t-shirts, sweatshirts and old jeans you could just as well wash the car in. I wish more of them would be like Billie here, all decked out in a fancy hat, pearls and dress. Classy!

How I Came To Know It: A woman I used to date was a big fan, and Holiday made frequent appearances on her record player whenever we hung out at her place. Yes, record player. She was into records before it became a thing for the second time.

How It Stacks Up: I now have three of these “Quintessential” albums (there were a total of nine). However, none of them are true albums, so stacking up isn’t a thing. I will say of the three volumes I have (4, 5, and 9) I like this one the best. Wait – did I just inadvertently stack them up? Avert your eyes, and let’s get on with the review.

Ratings: compilation albums aren’t rated since they are not “true” albums.

It was the late eighties and Soulless Record Execs across the land huddled excitedly in wood-paneled board rooms to discuss how best to make money from the burgeoning compact disc market. They knew they could charge a lot for them, and they knew they were going to market the clean, sharp sound that they delivered. Decades of music was available to choose from, but what would rich, snobby audiophiles most want to listen to? The answer was obvious: jazz. And so enter the “Columbia Jazz Masterpieces.” And if they caught a few horny twenty-somethings like me in their dragnet as well, all the better.

The problem with “digitally remastering directly from the original analog tapes” is that your source material is still a scratchy mono record from the thirties, and nothing is going to change that. Also, in the late eighties Soulless Record Execs didn’t yet know how to make CD technology sound its best, and they were often too busy copying, pasting and hawking records to give much of a crap.

Which is all a very long and winding way to say that the production on this collection of Billie Holiday songs does not agree with me. Neither do mono recordings more generally (attention mono devotees – you are wrong. Stereo is better). Which is a damn shame because wow, was Holiday ever great.

Her voice is still famous after more than seventy years for a reason. It is an imitable combination of sweet and strong and yet full of pain. Holiday lived a short, troubled life, and it comes across in her music. Most modern renditions of classics like “How Could You?” are treated as vocal performances only; an opportunity to showcase the artist’s chops and celebrate some clever wordplay. With Billie Holiday, that playful artistry is still present, but she adds an element of storytelling that hints at the dark and troubled relationships that spawn such songs, making the experience far more engaging.

Holiday is also rightly famous for her ability slide on and off the beat, setting up unexpected phrasing that is fresh and innovative, while never feeling rushed.

A lot of these tunes make you wait a bit for that voice, with a few bars of the band playing to put you in the mood. The musicians on the record are mostly “Teddy Wilson and his orchestra” or Holiday’s own house band. Both lineups are amazing, playing a mix of jazz and swing with just the right amount of “out there, but I can still dance to it.” I’m not a jazz guy, but it is easy to love playing this skillful and it made for an enjoyable wait until Holiday grabs the mic and peels out some heartache.

This particular volume of tunes has a whole lot of very famous jazz standards (you’ll see some listed in the ‘best tracks’ below) and it is likely why I picked it over many of the other volumes that would’ve been available. However, even the tracks I was less familiar with were great, and despite the tinny, flat production the whole collection made for a fine couple of days of listening.

Best tracks: Carelessly, How Could You?, Moanin’ Low, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, They Can’t Take That Away From Me, Mean To Me, Foolin’ Myself 

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