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Molly Johnson: Because of Billie

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As Molly Johnson explains in the liner notes, when people note her similarity to Billie Holiday, she responds that, no, she’s not “like” Holiday but is “because of” her. Which is a stretch, considering that Johnson’s career began with a brief flirtation with disco and a longer affair with rock. It wasn’t until 2000 that the Canadian vocalist, then 41, shifted primarily to jazz. Tonal and stylistic echoes of Holiday have since become increasingly evident, culminating with this album-length salute.

Whether of natural evolution or practiced design, Johnson does Holiday proud. Her stated goal, elegantly achieved, was to evoke not just her heroine’s sound but also her spirit. Featuring an ace rhythm section comprising pianist Robi Botos, drummer Terry Clarke and bassist/trombonist Mike Downes, the set features 14 Holiday-related tunes, running the gamut from a vivacious “Them There Eyes” and sparkling “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” to a ravaged “Strange Fruit” and the crushed-velvet resignation of “Don’t Explain.”

Delivering one of the first tributes in advance of the centenary of Lady Day’s birth this coming April, Johnson sets the bar mighty high. And she goes a noble step further: In recognition of Holiday’s hardscrabble childhood, all of the album’s proceeds will be donated to children’s charities.

Originally Published