Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Billie Holiday: Rare Live Recordings 1934-1959

ESP Music recently put out a 5-disc set of Rare Live Recordings from Billie Holiday. Now, I laughed when I read the opening comment of Ted Gioia's review of the set on Jazz.com:

"When I see the words 'Rare Live Recordings' on the cover of a jazz CD, I generally run in the other direction."
It's true. The sound is generally awful, performances sometimes subpar, and the material can be too obscure, repetitive, or just plain lame. But with these recordings, I found myself listening with rapt attention to each disc.

First off, the sound quality is great. So that worry can be relieved.

As for material, yes there are a fair number of song repeats. Fine and Mellow shows up four times. But they're repeats worth listening to. The way that Ms. Holiday sings "Fine and Mellow" when she is 22 is not the same way she sings it toward the end of her career. In one of the short interview bits included in the set, she says:
There are two kinds of blues: happy blues and sad blues....Blues is kind of a mixed up thing. You just have to feel it.
I loved hearing the differences in the song depending on how she "felt it" that day.

But I think what I enjoyed the most about this set was the *performance* aspect of the live recordings. Not just Billie Holiday's incredible voice, intense delivery, or ability to give Count Basie's band a run for their money. I loved hearing the crowd go crazy. Really crazy. Screaming, shouting out, being moved by the music. I've listened to Billie Holiday's *voice* for so long. It's easy to disconnect that voice from the real person who was up there on stage, doing a sound check, trying to keep track of the set list, and singing her heart out to try and make a connection and share something with her audience.

In one song, her voice is drowned out for a while by a plane passing overhead. It was just a short moment, but it made me stop and imagine the scene. It gave me a second to think about history not just as something that is preserved and remembered in a book or on a CD, but as a living moment that happened once to living people. That's what things like Black History Month are really supposed to be about, right?

Here's an essay by Stuart Nicholson on Billie Holiday.

And here are Stuart Nicholson's top 12 Billie Holiday recordings.

Here is another live video. This one is with the Count Basie Orchestra in 1952. It starts with Billie Holiday's own heartbreaking composition, "God Bless the Child," and moves on to the swingy "Now Baby or Never." Enjoy!

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