2012 Records of the Year: Billie Holiday

It's been a long time since I have been remotely current in my listening. For example, three of the "new" bands I really like are Pavement, Massive Attack, and Radiohead. You get the idea. I actually do try to keep somewhat current, but most of my listening is aimed at expanding my knowledge of significant music across genres and time. I continue to pursue the idea of building a collection or library, an antiquated notion I know. I want to get inside the music, which takes many listenings.

That's why my favorite recordings of 2012 included a great collection of Billie Holiday's Columbia recordings from the 1930s and early 40s. I listened a lot to this music back in the 80s, but to revisit it is a joy. These recordings are great because of Billie's singing, of course. Her phrasing was perfectly horn-like, not too unlike Louis Armstrong's, actually. Her tone was a bit horn-like, too. A bit brassy and tangy at times, but not in that over-the-top, theatrical way of her contemporary Ethel Merman. No, more like her soul mate, the tenor sax innovator Lester Young, who is all over these sides. Or like the muted trumpet sound Miles would ride to the top in the 50s. Lester bestowed upon Billie her moniker Lady Day. And she in turn bestowed his upon him: Prez.

One thing that makes these recordings great is that all the best jazz players of the time contribute to the songs with perfectly concise and supremely hip solos. Maybe the solos had to be short because of the limitations of recording technology, but necessity was indeed the mother of marvelous invention here.

All the songs are part of what we now know as the Great American Songbook, featuring jewels from Porter and the Gershwins and others. She even made a lesser song like "What A Little Moonlight Can Do" into a classic. It's hard to get tired of listening to any of these songs, and to hear Billie sing them is a timeless experience, since she communicates the meaning and feeling of the lyrics so vividly--a talent matched in later years only by Sinatra and her disciple Carmen McCrae. She always said she didn't sing it if she hadn't lived it.

Maybe you've seen this video from late in her too-short life. Recorded on CBS in 1957, it features an incredible lineup of some of the greatest musicians of the late swing and early bop eras, including Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Gerry Mulligan and many more.

The essence of singing, the essence of swinging; the essence of blues and of jazz.


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