Billie Holiday | Rare Live Recordings 1934-1959

ESP Disk • www.espdisk.com

I’ve never fully immersed myself in the music of Billie Holiday. The vocal giant of early jazz somehow passed me by. Sure I bought a few records and appreciated her voice for what it was, but beyond a bad day when I would spin those records, I relegated her to the margins of my jazz kingdom. Sure enough, a number of labels — Capitol EMI, Verve and Columbia — already released greatest hits packages from Holiday, so why should ESP’s attempt be any different? For one, the 5 CD package Rare Live Recordings 1934-1959 is just that — full of recordings that are obscure or ones that were released in small runs. Not only that, but contents of three previously issued ESP recordings are found here. Though I find it hard to pin the reason for this, I enjoy the early part of her career the most.

Lady Day was already at her prime right at the start of her work. From the 1934 film Symphony in Black, she performs a heart-breaking “Lost my Man Blues”. Nineteen year old Holiday, backed by The Duke Ellington Orchestra gives a powerful rendition of the song. You can hear her heart ache from beginning to end. As if to change pace, she joins Count Basie for “Swing Brother Swing”. The Prez, Lester Young, accompanies her in Count Basie’s band of course. This would be a long and fruitful association that is emphasized on other discs of the set.

As drug addiction took hold on her life, she would go on to record “Billie’s Blues” as part of the first Esquire Concert in 1944. The dueling trumpets of Louis Armstrong and Roy Eldridge cried out the pain on two other tracks from the same performance. “Fine and Mellow” and “All of Me” are featured from an infamous 1945 Apollo Theater performance. Three years later, she was at the same venue to do a very bare take of “The Man I Love”. As to her later work, three pieces are featured from a Steve Allen Show from 1957 — among those “Don’t Explain” is fabulous, though “When Your Lover Has Gone” is not far behind. Eleven tracks from the 1958 Monterey Jazz Festival are featured. All of these see Holiday in top form. Even rehearsals with pianist Jimmy Rowles and bassist Artie Shapiro from the same year don’t sound like throw-away material.

As you listen to the goods on this set (and there is plenty of music that goes from good to great), you uncover a side of Lady Day you may not have heard before. You hear the heartache, the pain and the maturity that she hit early on in life. Though some may take issue with sound quality (some of the music was mastered from TV shows and old, disintegrating tapes), I beg to differ. In old, crackly sound, there is real beauty that is waiting to be uncovered. Liner notes are quite detailed and take us on a step-by-step journey through Holiday’s personal and professional life. “Feeling cannot be taught. You can teach a person to play the piano … but the one thing you can’t teach is feeling.”, says Ray Charles as the final comment on Billie Holiday’s music. Truer words couldn’t be better said.

Tom Sekowski – April 2008 (first published in a different form by Gaz-Eta)

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Tom Sekowski
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