“Don’t let anything hold you back.” The most successful individuals adhere to this mantra, allowing nothing to hold them back from there pursuit of success, happiness, fulfillment. Billie Holiday never allowed her limited vocal range to inhibit her from attaining the status as one of the greatest jazz vocalists ever. Instead, Holiday made the most out of distinctive pipes, delivering timeless classics that simply will never be duplicated. The Centennial Collection celebrates the crème de la crème of Holiday’s illustrious career, 100 years after her birth. Selection after selection, standard after standard, it is easy to see why Holiday was a musical “force to be reckoned with”.
The compilation moves chronologically through Holiday’s career, highlighting her earliest punches and concluding with some of her most revered, timeless classics. “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” kicks things off lightly with a spry tempo, showcasing Holiday’s more joyful side. This side is later contrasted by deeper, darker performances like “Gloomy Sunday” and “Strange Fruit”. Irving Berlin cover “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” is Holiday at her most classic, keeping things relatively simple, yet infusing transcendent musicality. Holiday embraces her strengths and accentuates them. What she lacks technically she atones for by developing her own untouchable approach, which is nothing short of a juggernaut.
Holiday goes on to shine on numerous gems, all considered standard jazz repertoire. She seductively draws listeners in on the Fields/McHugh classic “I Must Have That Man”. She’s nothing short of hypnotic on “You Go to My Head”, delivering with a poise that should be considered simple, yet sports an underlying complexity. The oft-covered “All of Me” receives one of its most memorable interpretations in Holiday’s hands, as she ‘milks’ each and every note for all its worth. The potential of each note and each phrase is realized in the hands of Holiday.
The bread and butter of Holiday’s magnificent recording career comes at the end of The Centennial Collection fittingly. Timeless and breathtaking is the best way to describe “God Bless the Child”, one of music’s greatest songs. “Mama may have, Papa may have / But God bless the child that’s got his own.” “God Bless the Child” is tailor made for Holiday’s voice — not surprising considering she co-wrote it. Once more referencing her “limited” range, this only fuels the brilliance and captivation of her performance as all Holiday musical phrases contain the utmost expression and thoughtfulness.
As heavenly as “God Bless the Child” may be, Holiday navigates the saddest songs of the album superbly. “Gloomy Sunday” AKA “The Hungarian Suicide Song” finds Holiday portraying the suicidal sentiment chillingly. Holiday once more exemplifies a foreboding tenor on “Strange Fruit”, more jarring because it’s realistic as opposed to hypothetical. “Southern trees bear a strange fruit,” she sings, “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” Even in modern times, “Strange Fruit” is painful listen — it’s authenticity certified without question.
Penultimate classic “Fine and Mellow” lightens the mood even if characterizing it as jubilant might be an overstatement as Holiday details the effects of love. On the closing “Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be)”, Holiday once more portrays the search for romance in relatable fashion. This ‘down to earth’ quality is one of many reasons why Holiday has such a widespread appeal.
The Centennial Collection captures the prodigious Billie Holiday masterfully. No, Holiday wasn’t a prodigy in the traditional sense, but she undeniably paved new ground. Often emulated yet never duplicated, this retrospective successfully highlights Holiday’s legacy capturing her essence. For all the hardships and flaws, Holiday’s voice and her innovative musical contributions are what make her legendary.