Thursday, November 6, 2014

Billie Holiday: Lady Day - The Master Takes and Singles (1935-42)


(Columbia/Legacy)

!!! A+ BOXED SET !!!

Tackling Billie Holiday as not just a musician but a complete entity is more than a lot of people can bear -- tragedy beyond what most of us can imagine lurks at every corner of that story. It's unavoidable, though, to anyone with a more than passing interest in American music or popular music in general. In a greater sense than almost any other series of recordings, Holiday's work is in our blood; divorced from the horrific childhood, adult disappointments and crushing downfalls of her private life, we're left with an unceasingly moving body of work. Knowing the frayed, dejected heart behind that strange, brilliantly imaginative voice only elevates the discography. My point is, it's crucial to read what you can about Billie Holiday to properly understand the miracle of her existence and her output, and you'll want to anyway when its enigmatic beauty and sadness strike at your heart -- even the liner notes (by historian Gary Giddins) in a set like this will help -- but in the end, the music communicates everything one truly needs to know. It's perhaps the most revealing, intimate body of work ever laid down on tape.

Presumably most everyone has heard a fair bit of Holiday's work; it would be hard, frankly, to avoid it. In contrast to what some may instinctively believe, this music isn't simply made for the background -- it rewards close attention, and in fact the more one listens to the tics and winding roads and unexpected moments of elation and despair in Holiday's performances, the more sumptuous and even addictive the music becomes. For the newcomer, Holiday's discography can seem overwhelming and confusing -- especially to one unfamiliar with popular jazz of the period in question, in this case from the middle of the Depression through the early years of World War II. That's unfortunate because the appeal of Holiday's best material vastly transcends the sometimes intimidating world of jazz scholarship. Born in 1915, Eleanora Fagan suffered various kinds of abuse from others that shouldn't overshadow what we're here to talk about: that she began singing professionally in Harlem when she was fourteen and first recorded as a sort of cash-in jukebox swing performer for Brunswick in 1935. As so often, this music that was meant as disposable that happened to be given a laissez-faire blank slate by the label turned out as a result to stand as a creative triumph for the singer, who took the professional name Billie Holiday, and the pianist Teddy Wilson.

She would later record -- with greater control over her material -- for Commodore, Decca and finally Verve. The Commodore and Decca records encompassed some of her biggest commercial hits, including the legendary "Strange Fruit," and inheriting the sometimes ghostly, sometimes sugary string arrangements from Decca, Verve documented her loss of her former vibrant control and enthusiasm. The grimness into which she was born and that seemingly always cursed her finally caught up to her performances; some find the frayed, exhausted singing of those later Verve records to be Holiday's most transcendent and moving work. But the early material, gathered here under the Columbia umbrella (though it was issued on various labels, including Brunswick and OKeh), captures an American master at her zenith and, unlike the Verve works, requires no setup or explication. Under the Lady Day title, you can buy it as a two-, four- or ten-disc set, the two-discer an introduction and the ten-discer a diving into every bit of minutiae from 1933 to 1944. There's no way two discs will be enough for even the greenest of admirers. Ten discs might be a lot to take in, but even with these generously packaged four, you feel as if you could keep going all day and night.

Holiday's work in what we'll conveniently call the Columbia years wasn't "accidentally" brilliant, as is sometimes argued; the accident, at least, was strictly on the part of the labels that were feeding her material that often disinterested or even irritated her. She wasn't the primary artist or bandleader in those early days, though even when her peers are at their best -- particularly Lester Young and Roy Eldridge, though the personnel revolves liberally -- she dominates these recordings artistically. Given carte blanche to virtually invent an improvisational style that resonates and is (usually poorly) imitated to this day, she turned juke-joint 78s designed as flimsy musical wallpaper into statements of profound purpose that often crossed over into the sublime. One instinctively knows this without, as Giddins mentions in the liners, studying the sheet music of staid little numbers like "Spreadin' Rhythm Around" and "A Sailboat in the Moonlight" -- but indeed, Holiday spins these strands of bare, sweet-nothing inspiration into a virtuoso harnessing of, more often that not, awe-inspiringly deep and complex emotional catharsis. Holiday's Columbia sides might be the quickest way available to us to explain why and how recordings can transcend mere songs: these performances vastly supersede the trifling little numbers from which they're launching. At times, as with "LIfe Begins When You're in Love," "On the Sentimental Side" and "I Must Have That Man," Holiday doesn't merely spin mediocrity into splendid entertainment but into a masterpiece.

Not all of the songs Holiday performed in the '30s were poor. She got several chances to wring beauty and charm from the works of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, chief playful stalwarts of the Great American Songbook, while her own "Billie's Blues" would be a keen selection even if it wasn't helped along by Bunny Berigan and Artie Shaw, but what's impressive is how frequently the quality of the material doesn't particularly matter as much as Holiday's interpretation of its mood, her subverting and expanding its essence. Something as minute as the placement of the vocals on "Did I Remember" can create delight and drama, and the records are made more vital and engaging by their brevity. With almost no exceptions, each and every performance ends so quickly as to leave you wishing it could continue, that we could expand that swinging groove just a little longer. Holiday doesn't always sound like she's enjoying herself -- indeed, a hint of playful sarcasm is crucial to the way she approaches fluff like "He's Funny That Way" and "I'm Gonna Lock My Heart" -- but she does always sound as if she is open-hearted and willing to go where the song and the band deign to take her. Some tracks here are stronger than others (though remarkably, across all four discs there is not a single remotely poor cut), inevitably, but one cannot claim that there is a false note to any of Holiday's vocal choices, which have the feel of incisive purpose and miraculous spontaneity at once.

It's natural to assume that context matters when listening to a grand boxed set like Lady Day in either of its expanded, luxurious formats, and one needn't be strongly literate in jazz to know that this music does reflect the mood and the sound of a strange, uncertain time in American (and world) history. My own feeling, though, is that in the same manner that knowledge of Holiday's personal life and its ups and downs can enhance one's appreciation of the mastery in her professional work, keeping yourself entrenched in this music's give-and-take with the culture of its time is little more than a petty distraction. The emotive reality of Holiday's performances, taking the bands she worked with into account or not (though you really should; "When You're Smiling," for instance, is great for reasons almost wholly separate from Holiday's presence), is something that doesn't change with passing years. In the specific case of her Columbia recordings, she is a sad figure behind a facade, but she's fully aware of that facade and it's an essential part of her vocalizing. When taking on "A Fine Romance" from Swing Time or the gloriously ironic "Things Are Looking Up," you get a sense of a complete, three-dimensional personality, and one probably familiar to any introspective or insecure listener: Billie Holiday is the person trying and failing to have a good time at a social gathering, anything to distract from the halting pain of late nights alone. What about the intervening decades has changed that feeling? Thought so.

If Lady Day isn't a perfect introduction to Billie Holiday and indeed to jazz (and to her importance in it, which is inextricably tied with these recordings from the first half of her career), then surely the fourth disc qualifies. There are masterpieces spread throughout the set, in fact almost more than we've got time to talk about in this review (they are listed below), but the final volume is almost freewheeling with them: the stubbornly powerful "God Bless the Child," the worn-down wounds and reluctant joy of "All of Me," the ethereal "I Cover the Waterfront," and the stunning previews of the shades of gray so prevalent in Holiday's later work on "Gloomy Sunday" and "Until the Real Thing Comes Along." We could go on, of course -- the disc peaks with my personal favorite Holiday recording (though the oddly underappreciated "You Let Me Down" isn't far behind), the bleak, cynical, gorgeous "Am I Blue?", the most perfect evocation of heartbreak and its many uncertainities in a discography with many examples. There's a kind of tearful selflessness to the song, to the scope of Holiday's output; her heartbreak eclipsed mine and probably yours. She had more reason to laugh and cry and feel the depths of "Am I Blue?" than almost anybody else, but she gave us that recording of it, allowed us to share in that sense of loss and the comfort of expressing it. That's the glory of not just music but art in a nutshell. That's why it seems reductive to just talk about melancholy, vitality, sensuality, even if "Moanin' Low" is the sexiest thing you've ever heard on a record.

Elsewhere, the layers and dimensions are harrowing to presumably even the general listener, even when she's giving stuff like "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" (now most famous as the song Katharine Hepburn sings to her pet leopard in Bringing Up Baby) a far kinder and more raggedly wise treatment than it deserves. You don't have to understand timing and timbre (or care that she doesn't bother switching the gender on "These Foolish Things") to be riveted and heartstruck by how high and low she gets, how she cracks, how you can feel like you're inside her voice on these remastered recordings. As the years go by and we listen to Billie Holiday becoming famous, becoming an icon, you can marvel at her blossoming skill as a bandleader on "A Sailboat in the Moonlight" or at how her style continues to develop with the voice finding new expressions as late as 1938's "I Can't Get Started," but there's nothing quite like the feeling when you hear Holiday take on a vast, world-altering song like "Night and Day" or "St. Louis Blues." That's when all this stuff about what it was she did on record, what motivated her to do it, What It Really Meant just washes away -- your impulse, very correctly, is to shut up, close your eyes and listen.

***

APPENDIX A: MASTERPIECES
For anyone new to Billie Holiday's Columbia recordings -- and in a sense, I am too; I've listened to this set for quite a few years but only this year have really sat down and explored it in depth -- this is a list of the songs that seem to me at least like the essence of this period. These jazz standards or songs that were made standards by this specific performer capture either Holiday as a young master of her craft, are gobsmackingly impressive in their improvisational acrobats or emotional depth, or feature extremely engaging band interplay. Mostly they're just great fun or greatly affecting to listen to.

What a Little Moonlight Can Do (1935)
Miss Brown to You (1935)
You Let Me Down (1935)
Life Begins When You're in Love (1936)
These Foolish Things (1936)
Summertime (1936) [astoundingly, the first version of this Gershwin masterwork to hit the pop charts]
Billie's Blues (1936)
A Fine Romance (1936)
The Way You Look Tonght (1936)
I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm (1937)
He Ain't Got Rhythm (1937)
Why Was I Born? (1937)
I Must Have That Man (1937)
My Last Affair (1937)
Moanin' Low (1937)
They Can't Take That Away from Me (1937)
I'll Get By (1937)
Mean to Me (1937)
A Sailboat in the Moonlight (1937)
Things Are Looking Up (1937)
My Man (1937)
When You're Smiling (1938)
On the Sentimental Side (1938)
You Go to My Head (1938)
I Can't Get Started (1938)
Long Gone Blues (1939)
Them There Eyes (1939)
Night and Day (1939)
The Man I Love (1939)
Body and Soul (1940)
St. Louis Blues (1940)
All of Me (1941)
God Bless the Child (1941)
Am I Blue? (1941)
I Cover the Waterfront (1941)
Love Me or Leave Me (1941)
Gloomy Sunday (1941)
Until the Real Thing Comes Along (1942)

APPENDIX B: ELEVATED MEDIOCRITY
It's not far from likely that these songs would scarcely be remembered if not for Holiday's performances of them -- these phenomenal recordings define how much Holiday as a performer could make something of just about anything she was given. Even if she hated it. Even if she audibly hated it. The results are usually stunning, regardless.

If You Were Mine (1935)
Spreadin' Rhythm Around (1935)
Life Begins When You're in Love (1936)
It's Like Reaching for the Moon (1936)
Did I Remember (1936)
One, Two Button Your Shoe (1936)
I Must Have That Man (1937)
The Mood That I'm In (1937)
Where Is the Sun? (1937)
Don't Know If I'm Comin' or Goin' (1937)
A Sailboat in the Moonlight (1937)
Without Your Love (1937)
He's Funny That way (1937)
On the Sentimental Side (1938)
I'm Gonna Lock My Heart (1938)

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