I’m sure that you’ve noticed that there is not a shortage of “celebrations” of Billie Holiday’s 100th birthday. Reissues and tributes from vocalists to pianists are as ubiquitous as stories on Bruce Jenner. This 2 cd set from Uptown Records is just about the only thing you need to pay attention to as far as anything “new” coming out. Culled from various concerts, TV shows and broadcasts, these well re-mastered recordings find Lady Day in surprisingly strong form and in a variety of musical settings that display her versatility.
While she’s best known as a “blues” singer and a prime deliverer of desultory ballads, what comes across on these sessions is her inherent ability to swing. Her ability to take a lyric and inflect it or play with its accent is found on almost every song here. As one of the announcers says, “Let Billie herself show you what she does,” and she does wonders at a 1948 show at the Shrine in LA with Bobby Tucker/p, John Levy/b and Phil Haver/dr with a playful “You’re Driving Me Crazy” and a harrowing and haunting “Strange Fruit” as well as a rarely heard read of “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone.” A broadcast with Red Norvo’s all Stars with Jimmy Rowles/p and a hip Neal Hefti/tp bebop with delight on “Bop!” and the team joins with Holiday’s trio for playful and insouciant versions of “Miss Brown to You” and “Them There Eyes.”
The second disc is a panoply of various appearances, with a pair of duos with Carl Drinkard/p serving up a deeply intimate take of “Lover Man” in 1951. A show from Belgium in ’54 with Carl Drinkard/p, Red Mitchell/b and Elaine Leighton/dr has her in a buoyant mood throughout with bouncy reads of “Them There Eyes,” “All of Me” and “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” swinging like a gate. Jimmy WOode/b and Marquis Foster/dr do some replacing for a Boston show the same year with a lovely “Tenderly” and thoughtful “Willow Weep For Me.”
Did you know Holiday was on the Steve Allen TV Show? Where has our culture gone? She’s wonderful on “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” as Allen interviews her about her latest album and her recently (1956) autobiography. She is with Corky Hale/p, Jules Bertaux/b and Bob Neel/dr on a liltingly bluesy read of “I Love My Man” and even just two years before her death she has no hints of vocal decline with Paul Quinichette’s Prezly tenor, Carl Mark/p, Sam Saffini/b and Dominic Simonetta/dr on a vulnerable “Good Morning Heartache” and rarely performed “You Better Go Now.”
There is an accompanying booklet that’s chock full of vintage pictures and information of this period of Holiday’s career. This set is NOT just for collectors, but for anyone who wants to hear the artist apart from the legend. Timeless art served on a pair of discs.