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Metropolitan Jazz Octet: It’s Too Hot for Words– Celebrating Billie Holiday (Delmark)

A review of the group's album featuring Dee Alexander

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Metropolitan Jazz Octet, It's Too Hot for Words– Celebrating Billie Holiday
The cover of It’s Too Hot for Words– Celebrating Billie Holiday by the Metropolitan Jazz Octet

Billie Holiday tributes can get pretty lachrymose, but Chicago’s ebullient Dee Alexander is not one to throw a pity party. Here, as is her wont, she both honors her source material and reimagines it, aided by some brilliant arrangements as well as deft accompaniment (and first-rate solos) from the Metropolitan Jazz Octet. Although she doesn’t shy away from Holiday’s dark side, much of what she and the MJO offer is, in a word, fun, which isn’t always an adjective associated with Lady Day.          

Alexander brings her full armamentarium of nuance and emotional commitment to such romantic fare as “You’re So Desirable,” “Things Are Looking Up” (concluding with a characteristically audacious scat-soar into the stratosphere), “I Wished on the Moon,” and the title song, on which she unleashes a breathtaking improvisational tour de force that spans multiple octaves with unerring precision and daunting virtuosity. Even on a more melancholy outing like “The Blues Are Brewin’” she sounds less like a victim of heartbreak than a survivor ready to stare it down and sing—if not dance—in its face.

Alexander also rescues “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” from its moral ambiguity, wisely excising some of the original’s more masochistic lyrics to inhabit the persona of a good-timing woman tough enough to accept the blues as part of the dues. Her elastic enunciation, swoops, and bends, buoyed by the sprightly, slick-swinging MJO, make it clear that she’s playing a character, not delivering a manifesto.

Not so, though, with “Strange Fruit.” Saxophonist/flutist Jim Gailloreto’s arrangement is cinematic in scope, unremittingly dark yet charged with a pulsating undercurrent of militance, which is also how Alexander sings it—as one bearing witness to atrocity, haunted yet resolute, fortifying us with the very anguish of her vision, recalling Malcolm’s immortal admonition in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Be this the whetstone of your sword.”

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Originally Published

David Whiteis

David Whiteis is a critic, journalist, and author based in Chicago. He is the recipient of the Blues Foundation’s 2001 Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Achievement in Journalism. His books include Southern Soul-Blues (U. of Illinois Press, 2013) and Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories (U. Of Illinois Press, 2006). He is currently at work completing a book on contemporary Chicago blues and a co-written autobiography of the late soul singer Denise LaSalle.