Various Artists – A Tribute to Billie Holiday

January 01, 1970

(StormVox)

 

www.stormvox.com

 

Columbia
Records repackaged their Billie Holiday catalog numerous times, but a 1973
compilation called The Original
Recordings
provided a crash course in the power of the singer’s talent.
Sequenced between “All of Me” (in which a few bent notes create gallons of
emotion) and “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” (one of her first sessions, at
age 20) comes “You’ve Changed.” The latter song was released on her final album
Lady in Satin a rather over-arranged
session, by 1957 standards, made when Lady Day’s voice was fairly shot. The
title of the song explained it all. Nevertheless, it’s still a beautiful
performance because Holiday harnessed the power she still possessed and put it
to good use.

 

That
plaintive quality was a constant in Holiday’s brief career. Technically, she
might not have been a good singer, but her rough life infused her voice with
drama that more than made up for it. So when other more gifted vocalists try to
pay homage to the woman, the canon has it challenges.

 

And
other than perhaps Miles Davis, Holiday might be the only jazz artist whose
influence has crossed over into other musical genres. The word “blues” appeared
in several song titles, as well as her biography and film Lady Sings the Blues, but she protested that because she wasn’t
actually a blues singer. She was a jazz singer that borrowed from the blues.

 

The
vocalists on A Tribute to Billie Holiday come from different backgrounds and nearly all of them deliver strong
performances. The problem lies in the arrangements, which almost all veer
toward contemporary R&B, with funky one-string rhythm guitar parts,
swirling organs and slick production qualities. A salute to Lady Day doesn’t
have to use the Teddy Wilson Orchestra’s original charts, but it shouldn’t take
11 tracks to hear a serious horn arrangement. And no, Dave Koz, who joins Patti
Austin on “Body and Soul,” doesn’t count. Neither does the Sanborn-esque break
on Erin Boheme’s “Them There Eyes.” Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds has the pipes
for the project, but the glossy arrangement of “Strange Fruit” doesn’t seem to take
the subject matter into account. (For those who don’t know, this is a song about
a lynched person.)

 

The
album works best when the singers go for understatement. Rickie Lee Jones sounds
like she has a head cold on “They Can’t Take that Away From Me” but she evokes
the rawness of Holiday. Boz Scaggs might seem like odd duck in the bunch, but
he’s refashioned himself as something of a jazz man and “Do Nothing Till You
Hear from Me” leaves a strong impression, as does Renee Olstead’s “Good Morning
Heartache.” The album’s shining star is probably Grammy-surprise Esperanza
Spalding. She takes the deep cut “I’ll Look Around” and gives it a Latin lilt
that walks the fine line between smooth and rough, proving why she deserved
that award.

 

Throughout
the album, Angela Bassett reads excerpts from Holiday’s autobiography, which offers
some of the most compelling moments in the set. Her first-person coda about
Holiday’s death, however, is curious. Bassett says “none of the major labels
[Holiday] worked for paid her a single cent, but … made six digit numbers in
profits.”  It’s clear that record labels
exploited her, but a bold statement like that seems ripe for fact checking.
Still, a whole disc of Bassett’s blunt delivery could make a compelling tribute
to Holiday in and of itself.

 

DOWNLOAD:
Rickie Lee Jones – “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” Shelby Lynne – “You’ve
Changed.” MIKE
SHANLEY

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