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The Gig: Until the Real Thing Comes Along

Sorting out the Billie Holiday centennial onslaught

Billie Holiday photo by Herman Leonard

“A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces,” she begins, threading a single note almost through the entire phrase, her cadence buoyant but relaxed. This of course is Billie Holiday, easing into categorical reverie on “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You),” on a 1936 recording with pianist Teddy Wilson and his band. You’ll find it on Billie Holiday: The Centennial Collection (Legacy), a single-disc compilation released this spring-part of a timely onslaught of reissues, remembrances, salutes and séances put together to mark the great singer’s centenary.

Please excuse me if I sound a little dazed and nonplussed by it all. I take a backseat to almost no one when it comes to ardent enthusiasm for Lady Day, but the recent tide of tributes has struck me as a little forced, and largely hollow. One week this April, around the singer’s birthdate, I counted more than half a dozen related bookings in New York, featuring heirs as prominent as Andy Bey, Cassandra Wilson, Brianna Thomas and Cécile McLorin Salvant. Along with Wilson’s Coming Forth by Day (Legacy), any tally of recent jazz-vocal releases would have to include José James’ Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday (Blue Note)-another admirable, tasteful, mostly forgettable attempt to rebottle the old magic.

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