Edward W Batchelder

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Rare Live Recordings 1934–1959
Billie Holiday
(ESP Disk)

album cover of Rare Live Recordings

A quick search on Billie Holiday in Amazon Music turns up over a thousand hits—selections, collections, anthologies, boxed sets, imports, bootlegs, DVDs, and even remixes—which begs the question of whether we really need yet another Holiday CD for the holidays.

In fact, yes. ESP Disc, known for its pioneering free jazz recordings in the sixties, has managed to assemble five CDs of lesser-known live recordings, interviews, and rehearsal sessions that manage to throw a new light on Holiday’s career. Jazz is, at its core, a thing of the moment, a flickering communication among musicians shaped by an audience, and what some of these recordings lack in high fidelity they more than compensate for in spirit. The screams of approval and backtalk from the audience remind us just how popular and raucous jazz once was, and what sort of rapport Holiday had with a live audience.

More than that, though, the discs trace the trajectory of her voice, unmasked by studio tricks and second takes, from the jaunty insouciance of her early performances through the peak of her career and back down the other side when smoking, drinking, drugs, and despair had left her sounding, as one critic put it, “like her voice had died and come back to haunt us from the grave.”

Like many jazz singers, Holiday claimed that she wanted to sing like a horn, and that’s nowhere clearer than on live recordings like these. You can hear how just instrumental her inflection is—her tendency to slide into notes from below, to stretch the tempo, slur and quaver, and shift the coloring of her voice for greater expressivity. There are innumerable singers more virtuosic than Holiday, but her appeal lies in bringing an almost conversational intimacy to her singing.

Compare, for example, her early, stiff and faltering version of “Fine and Mellow” from 1941 with the magisterial sadness of her performance sixteen years later for the TV program The Sound of Jazz, where she lingers over the notes as if she were saying goodbye to them for the last time. “There’s two kinds of blues,” she states in an interview right before the song. “There’s happy blues and there’s sad blues.” Tragically for her, her greatest strength lay in the latter, and yet that’s what can make even her most ravaged recordings worth listening to. 

© Edward W Batchelder
(from ArtVoice)

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