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Mr Lucky
Music Reviews

Why We Love Billie Holiday Part 2: Consuming Bille Why We Love Billie Holiday Part 2: Consuming Bille

Last month, we explained why we love Billie Holiday (read the article). This issue, we look at the major releases in print that celebrate this great jazz and pop singer. Noticeably absent are the Columbia series The Quintessential Billie Holiday and Billie's own "autobiography", Lady Sings the Blues. The Columbia series has been bested by the Past Perfect box and Lady Sings the Blues is an interesting piece of fiction. The more we learned about the book, the less it interested us.

Recordings

Billie Holiday
Past Perfect Records 20.4220-PP

Cover artWe mentioned this box in December and we're happy to tell you this several months later: This was about the best $70 bucks we ever spent. Supposedly these 10 CDs represent all the studio recordings up to the Verve years with the exception of her Commodore recordings. And from what we can tell, it includes many of those. Most of this material is from her glory days, before the heavy drug use, when her voice was a true instrument and her joy in singing as obvious as the kick in a martini. There are songs that became standards and many obscure ones that should have. There are a few novelty duds but not many and nowhere near as many as jazz purists would have you believe.

The sound quality varies but it's no worse than the Sony/Columbia series that has been out for some time now. Sony should really be ashamed for not producing a top-notch Billie Holiday set with superior and sound and liner notes. Their catalogue covers much of the same period but they have been very lazy in paying tribute to these recordings that many consider some of the best of the century by any artist.

The graphics, packaging and notes on this package are poor but you do get recording dates and session information, so we'll learn to manage.

The Complete Commodore Recordings
GRP Records CMD2-401

Cover artThis is the kind of recording that separates the ordinary music lover from the manic collector. It would bug us to no end if we knew there were Billie Holiday studio recordings we didn't have, but listening to a handful of songs and their often indistinguishable alternate versions is pretty rough going. So learn to program your CD player or burn your own version. Or buy the Master Takes edition.

Billie took the song Strange Fruit to Commodore when Columbia refused to let her record it. She stayed and recorded some wonderful music that some feel is her best work. But someone is bound to feel that way about all of her different periods. We like the Commodore years but they do sound transitional to our ears and we probably wouldn't take this collection to our desert island if forced to choose.

The Complete Decca Recordings
GRP Records GRD2-601

Cover artThere is a little junk on this set, almost too horrible for words, but on the whole, the songs and arrangements are elegant and sophisticated and the recording quality is superior for the era. Most of the recordings are on the Past Perfect set but the packaging here is something special and the alternate takes are interesting rather than tedious. Not essential if you have the Past Perfect, but we wouldn't be without it.

The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve 1945-1959
Verve Records 314517658-2

Cover artThis ten-CD collection, unlike the Past Perfect edition, is completely overwhelming. Among the 10 compact discs are all the known studio and live recordings that Billie recorded for the various Norman Granz labels. As much as we love these later years, this box feels like work whereas digging into the earlier recordings are a joy.
The first problem is Billie herself. Her voice varies from session to session and chronological dates are irrelevant to how she sounds. But when she's on the money, she's simply the greatest.

Personally, we're glad we have the live recordings but what we really want to listen to more regularly are the studio recordings. It seems live, Billie had three or four songs she'd do over and over. It's not quite that bad, but it's not that much fun comparing different versions of the same song, trying to decide if she was wasted or not. Granz pushed her to record more classic pop songs and standards and the results were often great.

Also included are studio and rehearsal chatter. What to make of this? When you listen to it once, it's very interesting, but between these throw away tracks and the live recordings, you have to wonder if this 10-CD set is really the best way to hear Billie during the Verve years. All we can say is once we got the complete set, we still kept our individual albums like Songs for Distingue Lovers.

There is a 2-CD best of CD called Lady in Autumn but we found the programming at odds with what we would have chosen as the best of the Verve years.

Lady in Satin
Columbia/ Legacy CK 65144

Cover artAs you may know, you either love or hate this album. There's no neutral position. We're in the former camp and think she's in fine form, despite a voice that is ravaged. What we find unlistenable is the follow-up album on M-G-M Records, included on the Verve set. Her voice sounds somewhat better but her focus is ravaged and she sounds distracted.

Part of the problem is that in order to compensate for the weakness in her voice, the engineers seem to have decided to mix her so far up that it sounds like she's whispering in your ear. The effect is both creepy and wonderful, depending on the song and your mood.

Billie's Blues
Blue Note Records

Along with a European concert (also issued on the Verve box) are a set of four songs recorded for the seminal R&B label Aladdin and a single track for Capitol. We find the Aladdin tracks superb and if Billie had continued in the R&B we would have been happy.

As Time Goes By
Drive Archive DE2-41024

Sloppy programming and variable audio quality, but the real interest here are the two airchecks Billie recorded with Count Basie.

Billie's Love Songs
Nimbus NI 2000

We're on the fence about recording engineer Robert Parkers technique of making old mono recordings stereo. Actually, he does much more than that and the effect is sometimes just plain weird. On Billie's Love Songs, his technique seems less intrusive than on other recordings and it's pretty wonderful hearing nuances and sounds you've probably missed before, but still, one never quite trusts what the ears are hearing. Interesting but not essential.

Videos

Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday
Kultur DVD D1292

Cover artThis is a sweet documentary but the production is a little sloppy and the narration sounds rushed, as if to fit it into a 60-minute format. The DVD version offers no additional material but the whole thing is worth it for the complete version of Fine and Mellow from the TV broadcast The Sound of Jazz with an ailing Lester Young.

New Orleans
Kino Video DVD K159

Cover artNew Orleans is a truly horrible film. Billie's character disappears about half way through the movie, but whenever she's on the screen, it's a treat. And in those rare moments when she's making music with co-star Louis Armstrong, the angels sing. What's frustrating is that it could have been a wonderful, campy classic if it had followed its own rhythm. Instead, it feels as if ten different directors decided the story's fate and in the end, they just gave up. Billie's acting isn't as bad as is suggested by Billie and others, and with a good script, she could have probably been a fine actress.

This DVD version also features the short Billie made with Duke Ellington, Symphony in Black. Her appearance is brief.

Books

Book artBillie Holiday
By Stuart Nicholson
Northeastern University Press

The book is a little dry, but it's Billie story told in a refreshing no-nonsense manner. Lots of dates are corrected from previous versions of her life story, if that matters to you.

The Billie Holiday Companion:
Seven Decades of Commentary

Edited by Leslie Grourse
Schrimer Books

You won't get any real perspective on Billie Holiday but it's hard not to enjoy the different essays, interviews and commentary on her amazing life and music.

Billie Holiday
By Chris Ingham
Unanimous Books (UK)

Book artThis little gem is an unpretentious biography with equal focus on her music and the events of Billie's life. It's not as detailed as other biographies but Ingham is able to put the Billie Holiday story into perspective rather than just list dates. As a jazz musician, his comments on her recordings are interesting but not gospel. A real treat.

 

 


 



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