Cover picture

HER RECORDINGS

SONGS FOR DISTINGUE LOVERS

Label: Verve RecordsYear: 1997
Company: PolyGram RecordsNumber: 539 056-2

Original Liner:

Writing a liver note about Billie Holiday can, curiously, be the most effortless thing in the world, and at the same time the most difficult; effortless because the adjectives of praise come easily when describing Miss Holiday's talents, but nonetheless difficult because you're apt to find yourself saying what's been said time and again in other albums, and, as in the case of this writer, himself.

The same applies to describing the songs which Miss Holiday treats, because Billie is that rare artiste who cannot and will not have anything to do with a song, which story doesn’t meet with her understanding and approval; literally, Billie tells her songs rather than sings them as far as the lyrics are concerned, yet, withal, treating the melody as strikingly as any instrumentalist.

As I re-read my rather sparing comments on the emotions evoked by Miss Holiday in these short stories that the songs relate, I have the feeling that I have overstayed my welcome in these notes, and that quite possibly the best liner notes ever written about Miss Holiday singing songs would be simply to say to the listener "this is a fact: Miss Holiday, has happened to some songs" and to the discriminating listener that ought to suffice.

Oh, just one more note before we stop. We kind of threw in the "distingué" because it had a nice ring to it; actually these songs apply to all lovers.

NORMAN GRANZ

New CD liner: Forty years after these recordings were made, Billie Holiday remains one of the most perplexing figures in the history of jazz. Fictional literature could hardly have provided a more poignant folk heroine: sex, drugs, fame, decline, the liberated/enslaved African-American woman, and the brilliant artist, ultimately consumed at an early age by these destructive forces within and without. There remains an almost overwhelming temptation to dwell on the legend, (ink it to musical interpretation, and confuse artistic quality with personal behavior. But there is tittle in the Holiday story, with its cumulative weight of indignities, brutality, and excess, that reveals much about her craft. What is there to explain the unique vocal sound, the utterly original way of recomposing a given melody, the delicately refined embellishments and inflections, and the expressive delivery of words - all embodied in an approach that is fundamentally simple, even austere?

Holiday was not the first great jazz singer - that distinction must go to Louis Armstrong - but she was one of the earliest and most innovative and, perhaps, she was the best of all. Holiday directly challenged many of the grotesque norms of "hot" singing in the pre-Swing Era of the 1930s: shaky intonation, badly controlled vibrato, lousy diction, simpleminded paraphrases of the original tunes, sluggish articulation, misfired frenzy intended to swing, and inept imitations of blues gestures made yet more absurd by their overlay on perky or sentimental popular songs. Holiday was having none of this, and when she began a long series of recordings in 1932 at age eighteen, we can immediately hear something truly original, We encounter a great jazz musician who sings, and whose art seems the result of an immaculate conception.

Holiday was quite clear about the genesis of her style, its core principles, and its most vital features: a basically instrumental, hornlike conception of melody (despite her faithfulness to the original words and her rejection of scatting), improvisational freedom, and the imperative to make every performance a unique, personal expression. A few quotations are especially instructive.

So I wanted Louis Armstrong's feeling, and I wanted the big volume that Bessie Smith got. But I found it didn't work with me because I didn't have a big voice, you know? So anyway, between the two of em, I sort of got Billie Holiday.

I don't think I'm singing. I feel like I'm playing a horn. I try to improvise like Les Young, like Louis Armstrong, or someone else I admire. What comes out is what I feel. I hate straight singing. I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That's all I know

In a taped rehearsal at a Los Angeles apartment, Holiday told pianist Jimmie Rowles:

And write the lyrics [to "Nice Work if You Can Get It"] out too ... because I won't remember it tomorrow .... See, I'll be in a different mood.

That's why I can never sing the same way. I can't do it 'cause I've never, I don't always feel the same. I just can't do it. I can't even copy me.'

Trombonist Benny Morton, who began recording with Holiday in 1935, recalled:

On the [Teddy Wilson] recording sessions Billie did a lot of composers favours. I remember one particular experience. We had gone through a couple of numbers that were accepted, when in walked a man who had composed one of these tunes. He heard the playback of his composition, then said, "That's a nice job, but it isn't my tune." Billie said, "That's the way I've done it. If you don't like it, we'll just cancel it, we have several tunes here we could do instead." The man said, "Oh, no, oh, no." I can't remember what the tune was, but it turned out to be one of Billie's hit songs.

From the beginning, Holiday instinctively understood that a musical note is a complex package, and that each of its parameters of pitch, duration, loudness, and tone color might be controlled and manipulated with respect to the other as she moved from one note to the next. Melody could be an expressive continuum of sound itself in which it is hard to tell when notes begin or end.

But there are also words, with their sounds and meanings - and when Holiday fused them with her melodic genius, the typical result was a wondrously multidimensional narrative.

Although she never abandoned her basic approach, it is undeniable that Holiday's singing changed in her later years. Gunther Schuller, in his brilliant and sensitive treatment of Holiday in The Swing Era (Oxford University Press, New York, 1989) - which is, along with Barry Kernfeld's discussion in What to Listen For in Jazz (Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, 1995), one of the very few musically informed examinations of Holiday's work - identified some of the more salient changes as aspects of a general deterioration. Holiday's voice darkened and coarsened. Her already narrow range became even more compressed and shifted to a lower range. This characteristic restraint and economy of means were occasionally reduced further, leaving a series of recitational mannerisms, a kind of musically heightened speech.

This CD comprises the majority of the master takes from Billie Holiday's last five studio sessions for Verve, in January 1957, two and a half years before the end of her life. Norman Granz chose to record Holiday with a small jazz band that included trumpet, saxophone, and guitar - a lineup a bit larger and more multitongued than the piano, bass, and drums accompaniment she used for club dates. Yet this ensemble was much smaller than the occasionally overwrought orchestral settings in which Granz liked to present alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. Some criticized Granz for withholding the star treatment from Holiday, but he clearly understood that her best recordings had been produced in a context that required first-rate songs, a small group of superior jazz players, and simple arrangements of the material - leaving broad latitude for spontaneous, interactive re-creation.

First, Granz wisely selected wonderful songs by the great tunesmiths and lyricists and by a few one-shot wonders. Most of these songs had already been sung recently by Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong (on Verve) or by Frank Sinatra (on Capitol), thereby provoking inevitable comparisons and providing grist for future historical investigations about the interpretation of American popular song. (It should be understood that Sinatra was very much indebted to Holiday for his vocal style.)

Second, the producer assembled excellent jazz instrumentalists, who were not merely reliable studio musicians and fluent improvisers but distinctly personal soloists. Harry Edison, whose muted obbligatos are such important elements of these performances, was an old friend from the Count Basie band of the Thirties. Jimmie Rowles had been a musical associate and close friend of Holiday's for many years. And there is Ben Webster, another old friend, who had developed into one of the very greatest artists in jazz, alas, without much critical or popular acclaim by the mid-Fifties. Hearing Webster on these performances is not simply a bonus but a revelation about how supreme jazz masters handle sound itself, and how intimately the best jazz singing and instrumental playing have informed each other.

Third, after creating his context for Holiday's musicmaking, Granz shrewdly stepped back and, to paraphrase his original liner notes, let the musicians happen to the songs. When Holiday was having good days' as she was at these sessions, the results were astounding.

You can read the books, articles, and reviews, look at the photos and video reproductions, and ponder questions about oppression, empowerment, and deterioration. But when you listen to these recordings, you will know that Billie Holiday is a heroine for the ages.

James Patrick

June 1997


   1 - Day In, Day Out                                     6:49

   2 - A Foggy Day                                         4:44

   3 - Stars Fell On Alabama                               4:32

   4 - One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)         5:43

   5 - Just One Of Those Things                            5:35

   6 - I Didn't Know What Time It Was                      6:03

   7 - Let's Call The Whole Thing Off                      3:32

   8 - I Wished On The Moon                                3:29

   9 - They Can't Take That Away From Me                   4:14

  10 - Body And Soul                                       6:26

  11 - Moonlight In Vermont                                3:53

  12 - Our Love Is Here To Stay                            3:45



       Total recording time                               58:45

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