Billie Holiday has been dead for more than four decades now, but her legacy is such that she will be forever releasing new material through compilations, box sets and generally good greatest hits packaging. This latest batch of songs, pulled from the Legacy collection at Columbia Records, shows why Frank Sinatra says he owed her greatly for his own success. “Billie Holiday is love songs,” the back of the album says in the liner notes. And from the 16 selected here, it’s difficult to argue with that notion. The accompanying musicians on the album include tenor saxophonist Lester Young, trumpet player Buck Clayton, and also pianist Teddy Wilson. But front and center is Billie Holiday. And thank god the lady sings love songs besides the blues.
Opening with “These Foolish Things”, the jazz and swing era oozes out of the speakers or your headphones. Wilson’s tickling of the keys is offset by the bass and soon horns. It all gives way to Holiday’s stunning vocals. “An airline ticket to romantic places”, she sings before really getting into the song. The only slight drawback is the hiss that is audible in the background due to the recording equipment. But for most it’s an endearing quality to the timeless quality of these songs. “Did I Remember” has more of a bounce and swing to it as Holiday quickly gets to the gist of the song. Although she would be compared to the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Holiday was able to put most songs over the top simply by opening her mouth. This song also features Artie Shaw on clarinet and Pete Peterson on bass.
These songs range in time from 1936 to 1940, but nearly all follow the same swinging jazz pattern, especially the rather raunchy sounding for its time “A Fine Romance”. Holiday never tossed aside a lyric and you can tell from the song that each line was crucial to the number. Bunny Berigan on trumpet gives a fine performance as part of Billie Holiday and Her Orchestra. Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love” brings to mind Squirrel Nut Zippers with its swing groove as Wilson, clarinet player Vido Musso and drummer Gene Krupa work cohesively. Holiday gives one of her best performances here thanks to the clarity of the recording and the nearness of her voice. The song ends a bit curtly, but moves brilliantly into the gorgeous “This Year’s Kisses”. Holiday takes the song, written by Irving Berlin, along a somber road that would define her later personal downfall. “Why Was I Born” has the singer contemplating the meaning of life and all of the questions within in.
The first true departure from the swing oriented songs is “I Must Have That Man”. Working around her vocals, the orchestra lets Holiday do the bulk of the work for this song. And she shines, even quickly reaching down into a Louis Armstrong growl for a split second before the bridge. “Moanin’ Low” is par for the jazz blues course, making the listener wait patiently for the star to shine again. The brunt of these songs ranges from less than three minutes to three minutes and twenty seconds, so the format for most are virtually identical. Regardless though, today’s crop of jazz stars just couldn’t match up. Nor should they be expected to.
“He’s Funny That Way” is a departure from the rest as Holiday wastes little time jumping in. Hitting more high notes on this track that others included here, Holiday seems to have a certain affinity for this song and steals the thunder from the supporting orchestra. “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” starts with a lengthy instrumental opening. Holiday kicks in and the listener should be cracking a smile afterwards. The tenderness in her performance here is second to none. “More Than You Know” begins the homestretch of this album, with more of Holiday’s soul being bared. Recorded in 1939, prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, Holiday doesn’t sound tired but she isn’t quite as crisp as she is on “When A Woman Loves A Man”.
“I Cover the Waterfront” and “Love Me or Leave Me” are the final two songs on this memorable trip. The last song title might be a hint at what this album does to you: it’s difficult not to love and even harder to leave out of your player. A classic package by a timeless performer.
// Notes from the Road
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