Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles
This four-disc retrospective of Billie Holiday's work for the various labels under the ARC umbrella (Columbia, Brunswick, Vocalion, OKeh) between 1935 and 1942 is a truncated edition of the magnificent 230-track, 10-CD Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933-1944), released in 2001. It retains both a fair sampling of the earlier box's great music -- 80 tunes -- and essential features such as Gary Giddins's 4,000-word essay and a revised version of producer Michael Brooks's track-by-track annotation, both of which serve to place Holiday's art in its proper historical context and to illuminate the aesthetic nuances of the performances. As Giddins observes, there were many Billie Holidays, depending on a listener's mood, when the recordings were made, who was backing the vocalist, and so forth, and they're all here. The songs are in chronological sequence, beginning with a wistful mid-tempo ballad, "I Wished On the Moon," from a July 1935 session with Holiday as a featured vocalist in a band led by Teddy Wilson and including among its members Benny Goodman, Ben Webster, and Cozy Cole. By October of that year, she was giving a supremely confident -- and coy -- reading of an early Johnny Mercer billet doux, "If You Were Mine." A year later, again fronting a Teddy Wilson-led aggregate (featuring Jonah Jones on trumpet and Johnny Hodges on alto sax), she's delivering some swaggering attitude in an engaging take on "These Foolish Things." A smoky version of the Gershwins' "Summertime"; her self-penned, gently swinging "Billie's Blues" (in which she references Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Matchbox Blues," which had been recorded only nine years earlier); a saucy, delightful treatment of an early Dorothy Fields-Jerome Kern gem that became a standard, "A Fine Romance"; and a languid, swaying version of "Pennies from Heaven" -- by the time the first disc ends, Holiday is in full bloom as an artist, bringing deep emotional commitment to her performances and a keen sense of drama and nuance. For most of Discs 2, 3, and 4, she's fronting her own orchestra, which she populated with giants on the order of Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Freddie Green, James Sherman, Jo Jones, Harry Edison, Walter Page, et al., and rarely makes a misstep. She digs deep into what has become the Great American Songbook, assaying material by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh, Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, and even puts her mark on W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" and "Loveless Love" (both featured on Disc 4). Of course, there are Holiday monuments aplenty, such as "Night and Day," "You Go to My Head," "He's Funny That Way," "God Bless the Child," "I Cover the Waterfront," and the earthiest, most definitive rendition of "All of Me," recorded in 1941 with Lester Young and still unsurpassed among many exemplary recordings of this evergreen. Holiday was still making great music through the '40s, so this set serves as a clear, gripping snapshot of an artist coming of age rather than a definitive overview. In the end, though, it's simply extraordinary music, by Lady Day and all her estimable musician friends, still relevant to the human condition, still beckoning to anyone who is moved by the sound of a very human heart fully and unabashedly exposed.