If you're reading this blog, you already know the historical
importance of Billie Holiday. But when was the last time you put on one of her CDs and gave the entire album a careful listen? Be honest. Probably not for a while. And if you did, Billie probably was on as background music.
All of my jazz friends who cherish Billie confess they reserve her albums for early spring or blizzards or autumn or rainy days or when they're feeling down—or up. Billie simply isn't a first choice CD for most people. Perhaps because she's too "heavy" for everyday listening. Or maybe she requires too much of an emotional commitment. Or—more likely—the albums owned are from her labored American songbook period or frail final years.
Over the past week I've been listening steadily to a relatively new Billie box that will overcome your Holiday hesitancy. The set is the recently released Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles (1933-1944). After playing the box's four discs again and again, I've come to the realization that Billie on Columbia is vital listening not only for comprehending the meaning of jazz but also for a better understand of yourself.
This isn't New Age prattle. To me, what makes Billie more special than any other jazz artist is her ability to flood your emotional zone and make you feel what she's feeling. Which was quite a trick back then when she recorded these sides and doubly hard today. Considering all of the time pressures, worries, diversions and distractions we face, it has become harder to detach from reality and let the world of art sweep over us.
In an earlier time, art was important because it forced us to experience ourselves. Today, few of us have time for art or experiences or ourselves. We're too busy trying to get things done. Listening to Billie on Columbia forced me detach—more so than Billie on Decca in the late 1940s or Billie on Verve in the 1950s.
There's nothing wrong with those late recordings. They're brilliant works. But Billie on Columbia is something special, and the difference is evident from the first track. The material in this box is so powerful that going forward I plan to listen to all four discs, in order, monthly. Which means the Billie box isn't going to get shelved. It's going to remain on my desk, as a crimson digital reminder.
Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles capture 80 of Billie's best recordings for Columbia and its Brunswick, Vocalion and Parlophone lables. If you already own the mammoth 10-disc Billie Holiday Columbia box released in 2001 (right), you have all of this material. But frankly, the recently released four-disc set gives you the essence of her work during this golden period.
Between 1933 and 1944, Billie was backed by Teddy Wilson, Roy Eldridge, Benny Goodman, Lester Young, Buck Clayton and virtually every other great swing musician and big band you can think of. This is Billie in her prime, musically skipping rope and telling story after story with a high-polish, sweet-and-sour intonation.
The best part about the Columbia material is what isn't happening. Billie isn't being manipulated by a producer, or being talked into singing material that isn't quite right, or being strapped to a seat and handed a drink. Billie's just singing merrily, with perfect phrasing and tone.
For now, my favorite disc in the set is No. 4. Here's that disc's lineup—Them There Eyes, Swing Brother Swing, Night and Day, The Man I Love, Body and Soul, Falling in Love Again, Laughing at Life, Time on My Hands, St. Louis Blues, Loveless Love, Let's Do It, Georgia on My Mind, All of Me, God Bless the Child, Am I Blue, I Cover the Waterfront, Love Me or Leave Me, Gloomy Sunday, It's a Sin to Tell a Lie and Until the Real Thing Comes Along.
See what I mean? And that's just one of four fantastic discs. As for the sound, the hot transfers from flawless 78 rpms are perfect—meaning what you hear is crystal clear music, without surface noise or distortion. It's impossible not to be moved by what you hear. Your soul knows her voice. You just need to let her back in.
And don't make the mistake of filing this box away or burning the discs onto your computer. Just leave the box where you can see it. Let your heart tell you when it's time to put on Billie's Columbia masters, not the forecast or a calendar.
JazzWax tracks: Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles (1933-1944) is available here for $49. But you can buy a used copy for around $25 from independent sellers at Amazon.
If you don't want to buy the set, you can download a fair chunk of it on Lady Day: The Best of Billie Holiday for $19.90 at iTunes.
Still want the 10-disc box? You can buy a used copy here starting at $197.