Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday
US: 31 Mar 2015
UK: 30 Mar 2015
It can be hard to objectively measure the success of a covers album, especially when said album adheres to one artist in particular. When the artists in question are largely diametrically opposed in nearly every conceivable category, it can be all the more difficult to forgo direct comparisons to the originals and focus entirely on the new renditions of the songs in question. Only freed from their original context and any lingering personal baggage the reviewer may have can they be viewed without the taint of subjectivity.
But in order for an artist to transcend their source material and allow for a truly objective approach on the part of the critic, they need to place their own indelible artistic stamp on songs directly associated with the often more well known performer being covered. Failure to do so will result in, at best, a pleasant enough though ultimately unfulfilling homage to a celebrated artist or, at worst, a complete and utter train wreck of an album.
Given his somewhat radical, critically-lauded approach to neo-soul and jazz on his previous two releases, one would easily be forgiven for expecting more of the same from José James in his approach to the music of Billie Holiday. Eschewing expectations, James instead opts for a more traditional, straight-ahead treatment of the nine tracks on Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday. Proving himself a nuanced vocalist and competent interpreter, James delivers a pleasant collection of covers that, in hewing close to the originals and rarely straying from the beaten path, play as little more than mildly enjoyable retreads of songs given more gravity elsewhere.
Working with a somewhat subdued trio, James is afforded ample room to emote and explore the melody of each song. But unlike Holiday, he simply lacks any defining vocal characteristic or individual stylistic signature that elevates his work here beyond that of merely pleasant homage. Technically proficient and certainly technically gifted, James simply brings nothing new or unique to the majority of these oft-covered standards.
Rather than opting for perhaps more obscure or even thematic material, James goes straight down the middle of what one would expect of an artist looking to take on Holiday’s catalog. “Body and Soul”, “Fine and Mellow”, “Lover Man”, “God Bless the Child”, “Strange Fruit”, and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” all make their requisite appearances. Of these, only “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit” stray from the formulaic.
Built around a slow, funky backbeat and electric keyboards, “God Bless the Child” is given a mid-‘70s soul vibe slightly more indicative of what one would expect with a performer like James covering such well-known material. Always affecting due to its lyrical content alone, “Strange Fruit”, here delivered a cappela, is even more so due to the elegiac nature of James’ recitation. Still sadly poignant and all too relevant, “Strange Fruit” is far and away one of the most powerful songs of the last 100 years and, given an appropriately unique arrangement here, the weight of the lyrics and the starkness of the track itself allow for maximum emotional impact.
Removed from the Billie Holiday context, “Tenderly” would have proven a lovely standalone rendition. While it certainly standing out musically as a highlight on the album, it would perhaps have been better served as a single or compilation or soundtrack contribution. Make no mistake, James is a fine singer and interpreter of the material, but his voice is simply too characterless to leave any lasting impact beyond a mildly pleasant memory of the material.
In listening to James tackle the inimitable style of Holiday, especially on “Fine and Mellow”, the work of Nina Simone would seem a better fit. His aesthetic is closer to that of Simone’s, carrying with it a dark, smoky tonality that calls to mind the high priestess of soul much more so than Holiday’s raspy creak.
Bringing an element of contemporary class and sophistication to these standards, James takes sounds borne more of the halls of music schools and academia than the smoky clubs from which they originated. So slick in production are these renditions that each version makes the listener long for the grit of the original. Should this album serve more as an entry point for Holiday neophytes, it will have done a great service. Beyond that, it’s simply another collection of well-trod material delivered in a contemporary style that sticks too close to tradition to bring anything new or compelling to the table.
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