Monday, July 20, 2009

July 20: Billie Holiday, "The Commodore Master Takes"

Artist: Billie Holiday
Album: The Commodore Master Takes
Year: 1939 & 1944 (Recorded), 2000 (Released)
Label: Commodore

Before there was Janis, there was Nina, and before Nina, there was Aretha. Before Aretha, there was Ella. Before Ella, there was Billie. The truth of the matter is, before Billie, there were very few singers who were anything more than "Tin Pan Alley" style performers, and it was she who was the first to really "personalize" blues and soul singing. Lady Day, as she was named by her longtime friend, Lester Young, carried with her one of the most sensational voices in history, as well as an uncanny refusal to compromise her sound or style in any way. This led to Holiday alienating many club owners, as her unorthodox style of singing was often as controversial as the color of her skin, and in the 1930's, this almost always spelled the end of the career for a singer. However, Billie Holiday's voice was so fantastic, and the soul behind her singing nothing short of stunning, that label execs and club owners simply could not ignore her breathtaking talent. There are, quite literally, hundreds of collections and compilations of her recordings, and this is very much due to the fact that Holiday recorded for at least three different labels, and they were mostly freelance sessions, as opposed to working under a standard contract with a specific label. Taking all this into account, the sessions she recorded for Commodore Records in 1939 and 1944 contain some of her finest, and most memorable work. While every note of these sessions is available on The Complete Commodore Recordings, it is truly only a necessary purchase for Holiday "completeists." However, in 2000, these tapes were brilliantly remastered, and what was released may be the finest collection of Billie Holiday's myriad of recordings, The Commodore Master Takes.

The story of how exactly Holiday (real name, Eleanora Fagan) found herself at Commodore Records centers around the highly controversial single, "Strange Fruit." The song, which is one of the most vivid descriptions of a lynching ever written, was brought to Holiday by it's writer, Abel Meeropol (under the pseudonym, "Lewis Allen.") Columbia Records felt that the songs' content was far too risqué, so Holiday began "shopping" the song to other labels, until she found a willing party in the form of the legendary Milt Gabler. Columbia granted her permission to record a session at Commodore, and along with "Strange Fruit," Holiday sang nearly two dozen other songs in both 1939 and 1944. "Strange Fruit" became one of Holiday's most famous songs, and it became the final song of her sets, as the entire club would be made dark, with only a single spotlight on Holiday as she sang. This image became an iconic symbol of the majesty of Holiday's performances. Artists from Nina Simone to Jeff Buckley to Tori Amos have recorded covers of the song, and it remains one of the most moving and important songs in the history of recorded music. The version found on The Commodore Master Takes is, in fact, the first studio recording of the song, and the emotion and power behind the song still carries, nearly eight decades later.

As there are two distinct recording sessions represented on The Commodore Master Takes, there are also two very different, yet equally superb, backing bands. For the initial 1939 session, trumpet master and band leader, Frankie Newton brings his octet to the studio, and it is they who provide the mellow, chilling music for "Strange Fruit," among a number of other songs. Newton and his band had backed Holiday many times, as they were one of the primary bands at Café Society, where Holiday was a regular. Café Society is also significant as it is largely regarded as the first "popular" inter-racial club in New York City. For the sessions in 1944, Commodore enlisted up and coming pianist Eddie Heywood and his band to back Holiday's vocals. Heywood, who made his name with a number of brilliant solos with Coleman Hawkins, backed many singers throughout the 1940's, and though they share many similarities in their sound, it is not difficult to pick out which band is backing Holiday on each of the songs. Both bands clearly understand the extraordinary power of Holiday, and there is very little soloing by the bands. This allows Billie Holiday to perfectly present her unique take on each song, and the music blends perfectly behind her sensational vocals.

While there were countless singers before her who sang blues standards with a jazz feel, there were virtually none who sang with such conviction and soul as Billie Holiday. Her tremendous vocal prowess, combined with the way in which she makes every song her own, makes the music on The Commodore Master Takes nothing short of mesmerizing. It is this "personal" feel that set Holiday apart from the rest, and it was clear that Holiday herself had lived through many of the situations about which she was singing. Whether songs about love, hope, or racism, Holiday clearly has first-hand understanding of the subject matter, and it is this aspect that turned many "standard" songs into "Billie Holiday songs." However, regardless of how much she could relate to the subject matter, it would be a moot point if she didn't also have one of the most amazing voices in history. While Holiday does not have the widest vocal range of the great jazz singers, the conviction and intense emotion with which he sings compensates beyond words for her slight lacking in diversity of pitch. Throughout The Commodore Master Takes, Holiday swings and swoons, her stunning voice painting a velvet-smooth texture over the meandering music of the backing band. Truly, there has rarely been a talent as captivating and soul bearing as Billie holiday, and one must experience her sound and soul to truly understand what makes her such an icon of music.

By far one of the most controversial, yet enduring names in the annals of recorded music, Billie Holiday remains one of the most important and revered names, as her earliest recordings slowly approach the century mark. Refusing to compromise the manner in which she sang her songs, and rarely being afraid of singing intense or risqué songs, Holiday paved the way for later female performers to have a much stronger position when dealing with clubs or record labels. Billi Holiday also stands as one of the first artists to "cross over" and gained a large white audience, though many club owners still refused to let her perform in clubs that were not "mixed." The voice of Billie Holiday, which she used to craft in the style of jazz improvisations, created some of the most unique singing styles, as she experimented with tempo and phrasings in ways never heard before her time. Having recorded with a number of labels, including Columbia, Verve, and Decca among others, the Holiday catalog is very wide-ranging. Also due to the fact that her prominence was largely before the era of the "LP," the best, and often only, way to experience the majesty of Billie Holiday is via the myriad of compilations of these recordings. Perhaps the finest of all of these comes from the two sessions she recorded with Commodore Records in 1939 and 1944. It goes without saying that Billie Holiday is, by far, one of the most important figures in the history of music, and this makes her recordings absolutely essential for every music collection. Finding herself in front of backing bands who are ready to give her all the space she needs, Billie Holiday is simply stunning and absolutely perfect throughout every song found on, The Commodore Master Takes, and the collection serves as a great introduction into one of the most dynamic and captivating performers in music history.

Standout tracks: "Strange Fruit," "I Cover The Waterfront," "Billie's Blues."

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