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Billie Holiday: Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944

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illustration of Billie Holiday

“This month there has been a real find in the person of a singer named Billie Halliday [sic],” wrote John Hammond in the British monthly Melody Maker in April 1933. The fledgling columnist had stopped by a small Harlem nightspot named Monette’s, expecting to find Monette Moore in front of the piano; the busy proprietress, to Hammond’s surprise, had been replaced by a talented newcomer. “[A]lthough only 18,” he remarked, “she weighs over 200 lbs…is incredibly beautiful and sings as well as anybody I ever heard.”

These words, the first published account of Holiday’s singing, would have consequences beyond the usual public endorsement. The enthusiastic Hammond, only four years her senior, had begun to dabble in producing and frequently put his money where his mouth was. He arranged for her to record on a session led by Benny Goodman (whose orchestra he would help form a year later). Holiday tackled two tunes, “Your Mother’s Son-in-Law” and “Riffin’ the Scotch,” on Nov. 27, 1933. While neither proved particularly successful-she only returned to the studio some 19 months later, experience having replaced some baby fat under her belt-the date would begin a relationship with Hammond that lasted from this, her first recording, through her 150th, nine years later.

This brilliant body of work later cemented Holiday’s reputation as the greatest jazz singer of all time. Who wouldn’t love to own it all under a single cover? Once an untenable wish, The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933-1944) has been fashioned into a satisfying reality: 230 tracks sprawl comfortably across 10 CDs. The alternate takes, radio broadcast air-checks and rarities conveniently gathered at the back of the collection comprise 80 tracks-35 previously unreleased in the U.S.

Of course, most of the pleasure derives from the music itself: Holiday warrants this magnum opus with or without her mythic status. As Hammond saw, her gifts were abundant even at an early age and they would bear fruit almost immediately. Through tune after tune we can trace her development. As an ambitious teenager, she tried to project her voice like the premicrophone Bessie Smith, while clearly wearing the influence of Louis Armstrong and Mildred Bailey. In 1935, Hammond paired her with pianist Teddy Wilson, a union that would also last through ’42. He and his estimable sidemen-including Roy Eldridge, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Lester Young and even Buck Clayton in his recording debut-provided their own instantly recognizable contributions, encouraging Holiday’s rhythmic and melodic freedom.

Despite her morose reputation later in life, an instinctive joy abounds in the early material, as heard in the exuberant swing of “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” as well as lesser known tunes like “Miss Brown to You,” “What a Night, What a Moon, What a Girl” and “Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Mo.” Owning perhaps the widest expressive palette of any young jazz singer, Holiday sings in a manner alternatingly determined, romantic, playfully knowing or melancholy. As time went on, both her polish and vocal rasp increased. She smoothes the contours of familiar melodies like “Mean to Me,” “He’s Funny That Way” and “All of Me.” Her straight, hornlike buzz reinforces the minimalist aesthetic.

The alternate tracks can only add to our appreciation of these skills. Unlike Holiday’s Complete Original American Commodore Recordings, in which little changes from take to take, the Columbia sessions offer some substantive variations: “The Way You Look Tonight,” for example, winds through a different set of curves each time. Others point to what worked and what didn’t, like the four takes of “Practice Makes Perfect.” Her interpretations of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “I Can’t Get Started” backed by Teddy Wilson’s arrangements pale in comparison to two rare air checks of the same tunes arranged and performed by Basie. Other bonuses include “Saddest Tale” with Ellington and His Orchestra, her plaintive contribution to his one-reel film Symphony in Black, and a pair of rare, wartime V-Discs, “I Love My Man” and “Do Nothing ‘Til You Hear From Me/I’ll Get By.”

Although the sound quality fluctuates from track to track due to the varying condition of the sources, this newly remastered set vastly improves upon the nine individual CDs released by Columbia starting in 1987. In particular, the rhythm sections attain fresh clarity. We can finally hear the superb guitar work of John Trueheart, a member of Chick Webb’s band; Lawrence Lucie, who worked with Benny Carter and Fletcher Henderson (and still plays in New York City); and Holiday’s love Freddie Green, the glue in Basie’s rhythm section.

The set’s packaging-an imitation 78 record album-may not fit readily on CD shelves, but it too improves upon the old, purplish borders framing dreadfully colorized and improperly sequenced photos of previous reissues.

If the set can be found lacking, it is in the accompanying booklet: the notes are far less inspired than the material they cover. Gary Giddins, perhaps the greatest contemporary jazz writer, presents a concise version of Holiday’s early life and a general context for these sessions. Uncharacteristically, he seems at a loss for words when discussing her art. Why else would anyone compare her to Edgar Allan Poe’s narrator in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” an odd and unconvincing analogy? Farah Jasmine Griffin, Columbia University professor and author of the recent If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday, ought to be able to illuminate the singer’s mythos, a subject on which she is an expert. Instead, skipping from Ntozake Shange to Langston Hughes to Amiri Baraka, she merely lists Holiday’s literary appearances. Perhaps the benign condescension is unintended, but watered-down, academic prose neither enlightens nor entertains the masses.

Reissue producer Michael Brooks, an insider formerly in Hammond’s employ, contributes some bizarre nuggets of his own. His track-by-track listings-many based on his previous reissue series-tend toward colorful, forcefully stated and unsupported opinions. “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” for example, rated the following critique: “Lay down a patch of manure and sometimes something wonderful will germinate in it. When the publishers handed John Hammond this piece of dogmeat, they little suspected that it would still generate royalties more than 60 years later.” Perhaps, we all have something to learn from Holiday’s minimalism, even when presented in mass quantities.

Thankfully, the music speaks for itself.