Originally conceived as a follow-up, companion piece to Lady Sings the Blues, the film in which Ms. Ross’ portrayal of Billie Holiday earned her an Oscar nomination, Blue was scrapped and then ‘lost’, with a few recordings resurfacing on later Ross albums. Though her acting performance in the film garnered positive critical review, the musical performances—that perfect pop voice substituting for the tremendous grain of Holiday—did not sit well with critics and Holiday fans alike. And for great reason. The two artists are similar in the sense that both have amazing voices; what they do not have is anything close to a similar raison d’etre. No one would think it a good idea to hear Paul McCartney sing Tom Waits songs.
So, it is nice to hear Ross, 35 years later, removed from such immediate comparisons as releasing this album in the original context would have necessarily reaped, singing the pop standards. Trouble is, the same critique applies: Ross’ voice is just too damn even for jazz treatments. It’s a small voice, a delicate, cute voice; jazz requires smoky voices, deep, broken voices—like Holiday, of course, but even moderns like Diana Krall and Cassandra Wilson hit the nail on the head—geez, American Idol Fantasia Barino even has a more suitable voice than Ross.
And the songs have been covered hundreds of times, meaning there is a crushing weight behind these tunes. Can you hear “Let’s Do It” and not think of Ella Fitzgerald? “Solitude” and not think of Holiday? Can you listen to “I Loves Ya Porgy” and not think how Nina Simone turned the rather casual pop song into an arresting dirge? Oh, and if only we could be spared listening to Ross scat at the end of that same song. It’s even worse than it sounds… not only does she scat, before she begins her scat-ending, she says “Scat!”, and then proceeds.
That aside, there are some instances where Ross’ small voice suits the song nicely, in the fittingly titled “Little Girl Blue”, which also features an excellent arrangement. In fact, overall, the arrangements and musicianship on this album are impeccable. The descending guitar line at the end of “What a Difference a Day Makes”, the solo in “I Can’t Get Started With You”, the strings on “You’ve Changed” all make for an extremely well produced record, which is better than, say, many of Ms. Fitzgerald’s affairs.
But the bottom line is Ross simply cannot deliver compelling vocal performances of these songs—they certainly aren’t better than any of the legendary voices, and they aren’t different enough from the countless other smooth versions. In logic, attempting to judge a phenomena or entity through an unsuitable criteria rubric is called a categorical mistake. So it goes with Ross’ voice and pop standards, making Blue is an ignorable, placid affair.
// Notes from the Road
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