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JazzTimes 10: Essential Herbie Nichols Tracks

Celebrating the centennial of a still-underappreciated pianist and composer

  1. Billie Holiday: “Lady Sings the Blues” (Lady Sings the Blues, Verve, 1956)

Like “Mary’s Waltz,” this track contains none of Nichols’ playing, only the work of another (female) artist interpreting his composition. It just so happens that the composition in question is not only one of his most famous tunes, but also one of Billie Holiday’s. Understandably (and unsurprisingly), Holiday’s vocal sands off some of Nichols’ harmonic barbs (already understated on his own recording, from Herbie Nichols Trio), laying bare his melodic genius. She also slows the song down considerably—and at that point, contributes barbs of her own. After a melodramatic cadenza from trumpeter Charlie Shavers, the legendary wear of Lady Day’s late-period voice collides with sobbing fills from guitarist Kenny Burrell and Wynton Kelly’s empathic piano. And there’s troubling ambiguity in the final line of Holiday’s self-penned lyrics: “Now the world will know she’s never gonna sing them no more.” Is she bidding farewell to the blues, or to the world?

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Originally Published

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.