1935, 1937, 1939, 1942, 1944, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1954, 1956, 1958, 2008, Music

The Definitive Collection (2008) by Billie Holiday

Full disclosure: I do not like vocal jazz (as you know).

This is a compilation of 22 tracks over the course of Holiday’s career. I have no idea how definitive it actually is, as I do not know her at all, beyond her reputation as one of the great singers of the century, and “Strange Fruit.” I also have no plans on listening to her entire oeuvre – and, given when she recorded, curation is necessary anyway, because much of her music was recorded pre-album.

“What a Little Moonlight Can Do” is a straight up early swing number with not that much of Holiday, herself. Like many jazz vocalists she is, at this early stage, just part of a larger band.

“Mean to Me” is a ballad that, again, features plenty of instrumental solos before you are even aware Holiday is here (1:20 in). In both this and the earlier track, you can here the distinctness of her voice. No other jazz vocalist sounded like this.

“Strange Fruit” is the only song here that I’ve heard before. It is an obvious classic, though it’s not jazz, as I understand jazz. (But back then, I guess it qualified.) And that’s fine. It’s still a landmark recording as perhaps the first popular hit about racism in the US. And you get a great example of how she played with tempo.

“Fine and Mellow” is closer to traditional big band jazz, but is still focused around her vocal performance more than anything else. This track really shows off the bluesiness of her voice and the uniqueness of it.

“Travelin’ Light” features a very full band sound behind her and his more of a jazz pop ballad than actual jazz. Like her earliest recordings we wait to hear her sing until well after the 1-minute mark. It’s pretty over-the-top in terms of orchestration, but her voice is up front.

“Billie’s Blues” is more upbeat blues with an extremely stripped down arrangement (a trio backs her). It’s relatively feminist, lyrically (she wrote them).

“Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)” is a heavily orchestrated ballad. You can really hear her skill for phrasing in this one.

“Don’t Explain.” The orchestration for this one is more Romantic or Cinematic than jazzy, which is a change. Another fine performance on her part.

“Good Morning Heartache” is a particularly clever ballad with orchestration that mixes jazz influences with more traditional pop orchestration.

“Solitude.” Another ballad. A pop version of a (big band) jazz tune, it’s significantly jazzier than the other stuff from this period. This is one of those tracks where you can hear her trying to sound like another instrument.

“Easy Living.” Though still a ballad, this is a little more uptempo. Bluesy music despite happy lyrics. Guitar alert! At the two minute mark it practically explodes with joy (relatively speaking).

“I Loves You Porgy.” Her cover of perhaps the most famous song from Porgy and Bess. A stripped down band this time. Though I don’t know it well enough, this might be the definitive version.

“My Man (Mon Homme).” Another stripped down track (the flip-side, I believe); I must say I prefer Holiday without the orchestra. Feels much more like vocal jazz than pop.

“‘Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” Is up-tempo big band. Stands out among these late ’40s track. Music doesn’t fit the lyrics, which is neat. (Though they defend abuse…)

“You’re My Thrill.” Romantic orchestration this time. A little over the top. But Holiday still thinks she’s singing jazz, which makes it a lot easier to take.

“Them There Eyes.” This is another bouncy big band track where the band sounds massive. There are solos in this one. A return to jazz. (There’s even a call and response section, albeit a brief one.)

“Willow Weep for Me” is a significantly Cooler jazz track. Not a standard I know well, but definitely a good stab at it, possibly definitive.

“I Thought About You.” From the same session; she uses the full breadth of her supposedly limited range, and sounds great.

“Lady Sings the Blues.” Another track where the sound of the horns is rather incredible for the era (not the drums, though). I guess this is sort of her most famous song – her anthem as it were.
Switches tempo and shows off her lower range.

“God Bless the Child.” You can start to hear her voice deteriorate in this one. Super idiosyncratic phrasing.

“I Cover the Waterfront.” A live track from late in her career, with a smallish band. Now this is vocal jazz. The intro feels completely improvised.

“You’ve Changed.” This is a heavily orchestrated track from the end of her career. You can hear the change in her voice. There’s a choir, which is unnecessary.

This is not my kind of thing. But Holiday’s influence on popular music singing in particular is immense and this is all I need to convince me of that.

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