[22 July 2004]
OR: Billie Holiday in her absolute prime sings only high quality standards. Lovers of gloom looking for anything Stygian or depressive on this issue in Columbia/Legacy’s Jazz Moods—‘Round Midnight series will be cheerfully disappointed out of their wonted frown. Another careless job not to be complained about!
Ms. Holiday may “intend to be independently blue” (“Love Me or Leave Me”). “I Must Have That Man”—with its unusually hoarse (for 1937) vocal—may be all too consonant with the disharmonies in life which gave Lady her later right to sing the blues and an extra-musical iconic status. One of her later consorts was, after all, described by a friend as not quite such a [parental guidance required!] as the other bastards she seemed to have been drawn to, and so forth, along with the heroin. Yet in her prime she could phrase a song like nobody else, both musically and with acute presentation of the words of the song, lighting every phrase with meaning. She was jazz expression.
Here is the supreme artist at the height of her powers, 13(!) titles from 1937-1941 and a 1945 “I Cover the Waterfront” with some wonderful guitar in the accompaniment.
The opening “God Bless the Child” is philosophical, not tragic. There is talk of her having limited vocal powers, rather than that later lack of voice consequent on her physical trials, but it wouldn’t matter if that was true. She had everything she needed in every respect relevant to her performance. She went direct to the expressive purpose and there were things she did not need even if she had them.
Buck Clayton’s amorous propensities were legendary, but his huge-toned muted trumpet opening to “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” may well have explanatory power should anybody wonder why ladies went for him—or why he went for them. The lesser-known Vido Musso’s tenor saxophone (has anybody studied the Italian-American contribution to jazz in due depth?) is pretty sumptuous too. Teddy Wilson is of course a constant presence here.
Talking of amorous propensities, Clayton’s Basie colleague Harry “Sweets” Edison reminisced at one 1990s London gig about the beautiful woman he had desired most in his life (his talk was recorded) and (with decorous abstention from detail) he gave a powerful thumbnail of all he had gone through without ever attaining the delectable objective. This is the lady whose miraculous phrasing here turns gold into burnished. The days of tragic anguish and of all singing but precious little precious but worn-down voice have nothing to do with this. Here is the great artist of the less publicised legend. In excellent sound as well as excellent voice.
You might want to save up for the complete set of Holiday at this period. There’s lots of that, and this underfilled CD won’t discourage.
It would have been too brilliantly unmidnightish to include her “Sailboat in the Moonlight” here, given the title and the actual sunniness of that performance from the period of these recordings. I can think of little else which kept it out, apart from the Midnight motif. Its freshness and sparkle crystallised, for at least one veteran writer, the joyous heights from which the story descended into tragedy, that there had once been that. The fact of it says something about life. But if you wish simply one collection of Holiday singing a consistently valuable repertoire in the company of the musicians forever most congenial to her both personally and musically, well, this is one.