LADY DAY’S 100TH…Billie Holiday: The Centennial Collection, Lara Downes: A Billie Holiday Songbook

2015 celebrates Billie Holiday’s 100th birthday, hence the new meaning to the term “Centennial Collection.” Arguably the most important female vocalist in jazz or pop, Lady Day is represented here by 20 songs from her all too short career. What makes this collection so rewarding is that it emphasizes her earlier years, from 1935-41, and even better, it includes some of her best collaborations with her soul mate, tenor saxist Lester Young, who was the jelly to her peanut butter.

Most people associate Billie Holiday’s vocals with tragedy, but my dad, who grew up listening to her on 78s, always told me that he felt that she was a “funny “ singer. “She had a laughter in her voice,” he’d tell me, and on pieces such as “Mean To Me” “I’ll Get By” and “Them There Eyes” you can hear what he’s talking about.  Then, add Young’s airy tenor on “I Must Have That Man” or the lilting “Mean To Me” and you have a hint of jazz heaven. Yes, the desultory “Strange Fruit” and “Gloomy Sunday” are hear, as well as the string-laden hit of “Lover Man,” but you’re going to keep going back to the cozy small band groups with Teddy Wilson, Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges and all the big band stars who create spontaneous joy with Lady Day during a time when jazz vocals was at its apotheosis.

Possibly the most intriguing Holiday tribute may be this one by pianist Lara Downes. The adroit pianist goes solo in interpreting songs associated with the vocalist. At times she gives rococo hints of Art Tatum, other times a classica straightforwardness comes in. The tunes such as “Yesterdays” “Blue Moon” and “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” come and go before you know what happened, clocking in between 1-2  ½ minutes. Most of the tunes are concise like this, but “Strange Fruit” and “I Cover The Waterfront” are patiently drawn out, with space making wonderful sounds. A focus on the lyrical side of the Holiday Songbook that works well.

Sony Legacy

Steinway & Sons Records

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