For jazz fans, and fans of American music in general, the early recordings of singer Billie Holiday should already be gospel—essential and cherished source material for the foundational pleasures of all the music that would come later. Without Billie singing “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”, there is no Sinatra, no Ray Charles, no Joni Mitchell, and no Miles Davis. Billie’s singing—indeed her musicianship and understanding of a lead voice’s relation to the band and to the beat—is an international treasure.
This four-disc box set contains all the essential music that Holiday recorded between 1935 and 1942. Though the members of the band shift over the sessions and years, the model was established in the early tracks—the singer floats over a small swing group (piano, guitar, bass, drums and several horns playing obbligato, lines and counterpoint) with dramatic, effortless flow. On these sides, Holiday takes the art of Louis Armstrong and transforms it into something new—she personalizes Pops’ elastic, emotional vocal style and brings it a radical subtlety and simplicity. She stamps her crackling vocal sound so thoroughly on these songs that many of them will forever be hers, despite a hundred other singers trying them on for size. This music, this body of 80 short recordings, is the mother lode.
Of course, there is nothing new here. Fans and historians know this music well—Columbia has released it countless different ways over the years. I first dug it in a series of two-fer LP sets in the ‘70s. These 80 tracks were selected from 2001’s ten-disc, 230-track box set, and they are the choice tracks, commercially recorded with the best jazz musicians available. There isn’t anything about the selection or the sequencing that makes this collection better or different from the other ways the music has been made available before. There is a nice essay by Gary Giddins, always a pleasure to read, and a tasty track-by-track analysis of the songs by Michael Brooks. But, so what? This box set will be replaced by another package eventually. The music, however, is timeless.
Billie Holiday was “discovered” by record producer John Hammond only a few years before the first of these records was made. She would become a star, then a drug addict, then a tragic figure who aged and died too young, and then a myth who has lived on in movies and clichés. But more than anything, Billie Holiday today is a body of forever-level music, the kind of records that can never grow old.
What makes these recordings sublime? Time.
While Louis had already performed this alchemy ten years earlier, Billie—as a mere 20-year-old—fully absorbed Armstrong’s ability to place singing in sliding contrast to a driving rhythm section. The first brilliant side here, “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”, pits the neophyte Billie against no less a band than Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, and Cozy Cole. Their swing is so tight and perfect that the impossible tempo seems, if anything, to relax Holiday when she enters: “Oooh, oooh, oooooh …” From the outset, Billie understand that dragging behind the beat simply emphasizes and highlights the infectious groove of the band, and in playing foil to the group, she really joins it as equal. Billie never oversings or dramatizes her vocal production. She doesn’t have to because she is placing her notes so precisely on and behind the band’s time. When she sings, “Your poor tongue / Just will not utter the words / [delay] I [delay] love [almost painful delay] you” she puts the words deliciously behind and between the groove. Your ear and heart are tugged forward in a way that volume or high notes could never achieve.
On this track, as on most here, Billie is neither the leader of the date nor the truly featured element of the track. On “Moonlight”, thus, the first statement of the melody is made by Goodman, with the vocal beginning after a full minute and lasting just one chorus—a single minute. It is no knock on Goodman or Webster or Eldridge or Wilson (all of whom surely knew what they had in Billie) to say that Holiday steals the show without breaking a sweat.
The date from November 1937 (credited to “Teddy Wilson and his Orchestra” rather than “Billie Holiday and her Orchestra”—alternating leadership credits that mask a single conception that guides all this music) gives us the sublime “Nice Work If You Can Get It”, where Billie is subtler than on the lesser tracks. Her time here dodges and bobs, still dragging behind Wilson’s rhythm section, but also darting ahead in spots, playing cat and mouse with the beat. Earlier in the same year, on lesser material, the singer produced a set of minor masterpieces on which she was accompanied by her friend, Lester Young, on tenor saxophone. “Me, Myself, and I” is no great melody, but when Billie returns for a second chorus with Young running obbligato around her vocal, the music lifts so high into the clouds that the oxygen gets thin. Better still is their collaboration on “Mean to Me”. Young and trumpeter Buck Clayton “sing” the initial chorus, then Billie enters with a reinvention of the tune that is melodically ingenious, with notes bent and substituted with a surprise and logic that seem to defy each other.
This mixture of great melodies and lesser tunes is typical of the vocal recordings of this period—novelty numbers and hack tunes were routinely given to singers along with the gold by Gershwin or Porter. But in Billie’s hands, even the throwaway melodies take on resonance. Her “He’s Funny That Way” is one of the greatest records ever made, yet no other singer has really been able to bring it alive. On her second chorus, when she sings “he’d be so much better off”, well—you’d think that Stravinsky or Mozart had come into the recording studio on Broadway and placed the notes in just the right places.
Not every tiddle and jot of this music is perfect, of course. The version of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”—a durable song, certainly—is uneven and lumpy. Gershwin’s “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” is pleasant enough, but Billie’s treatment on the bridge just seems pokey rather than hip-ly behind-the-beat. A few of the later tracks here find Billie creeping toward the self-consciously tragic persona that would be her cabaret calling card in the 1950s—“Gloomy Sunday” being an exercise (or mood) rather than rhythm.
But these shifts away from my preference may be your favorites on the collection. What is undisputed is the brilliance of dozens of other tracks: an early “God Bless the Child”; Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It”; a brilliant “Body and Soul”; a tap-dancing “Them There Eyes”, where Billie swings the whole band herself, and so so so many others. The result of this body of work was a shift in how American music was made. The art of subtraction and subtlety was consolidated in a single, compelling voice and person.
So, when you hear Miles Davis pare away the unnecessary notes from “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”, for instance, you know that he is only channeling the brilliant Ms. Holiday. When the Bad Plus takes some pop ditty by Blondie and constructs something elegant and personal, they’re working Holiday alchemy. When you hear a Brazilian singer take a single note, then use rhythmic displacement to drive forward her band—that is the legacy of Lady Day. All of this music, and much, more is the fruit of these seven years and 80 tracks of stellar jazz.
While there are some eccentrics who prefer Billie in mid-career on Verve, or late in her career with strings, the weight of history sits plainly with these beautiful examples of small-group swing and vocal discovery from 1935-42. If you already know them, here they are in impeccable order and condition. If you don’t know them, then the time is now; they are a feast. Dig in.