Archives for posts with tag: billie holiday

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to a favourite album, and had the thought that it was a perfect enough album that it would be one I’d take to a desert island. And thinking on the very long-running (80 years!) BBC program Desert Island Discs, I considered what my other seven would be. And my thoughts took me further – most of my friends are music mavens and would have though on this concept as well. So in the new year, I’ll be interviewing my friends as to what music would see them through if they were the last person on Earth and there were only eight records to listen to.

I came to most of these albums in my 20s, that period after the teenage enthusiasms have been sloughed off. While I still love the music I cut my teeth on, the albums associated with that first period of coming into my own seem more timeless.

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So what was that perfect album? Premiers Symptômes by Air (1997), a compilation of songs from their first three singles. I first picked it up in 1998 or so, when everyone, it seemed, was going crazy for Air’s first full-length, Moon Safari. I preferred the slightly weirder, rawer earlier singles (though, to be fair, Moon Safari is a well-nigh perfect album as well). On these songs, the combination of Fender Rhodes, Moog, and euphonium bring me a strange feeling of nostalgia (for a period and place I never experienced) and are also perfectly of their own moment mid-90s moment.
Favourite track: J’ai dormi sous l’eau (YouTube link).

Duke Ellington and John Coltrane (1963) – When my friend Steve introduced me to this album in about 1996, I’d known of Ellington because of Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke and had some idea of his importance in jazz, but I hadn’t yet delved. And I knew Coltrane’s A Love Supreme (an album that after more than 30 years of listening, I still can’t get inside of), but this was something else. This meeting of two giants whose paths hadn’t crossed in the recording studio. Only in the last decade or so have I heard the vast number of collaborations Ellington undertook in the early 60s, but this was the first. For me it’s the interplay of Coltrane’s mastery of ballad forms and Ellington’s understated piano work. There’s a different sweetness in each of the album’s seven tracks that runs from the ebullience of The Feeling of Jazz and Big Nick to the yearning trills of In A Sentimental Mood and My Little Brown Book.
Favourite track: Stevie (YouTube link)

I came to Sister Rosetta Tharp much later than most music in this selection, while I was researching the origins of rock and roll for a series of blogs I wrote several years back. I’d never heard of Tharp. She was one of the progenitors whom the historians reference, but doesn’t get the kudos she should, for her delivery, her style, and her guitar mastery (not in that order). There’s a wealth of compilations to choose from, but Volume 2, the Document Records collection of 1942-1944 recordings has both rock and roll and gospel and my favourites Trouble In Mind (YouTube link) and Strange Things Happening Every Day. (Other favourites, This Train and Didn’t It Rain came later – I might have to keep looking for the perfect album.)

Aviary by M-1 Alternative (1991) – This band should have been huge, something I’ve said for 30-plus years. I got into them on the release of La Llorona, the first of their three albums in 1988 or so. My flatmate Mikki introduced me to them and I saw them perform in clubs in San Francisco over the next couple of years. I love all three albums, but this one features Ghetto and Reclaim (YouTube link), two of my favourites songs of theirs. The line I am a ghetto / a maze of streets far from the landing field always spoke to me – my feeling that I was too complicated and not near enough emotionally or intellectually to any place those I was close to landed and met. Theirs was a sad story, to me. They signed to C’est La Mort records for Aviary, and released the followup, The Little Threshing Floor on CLM as well. Just after The Little Threshing Floor was released, CLM’s distributor, Rough Trade, went under. One of the two members moved to New York and out of sight. The other has recently been remastering their work, starting with their earlier demos, and releasing them to Bandcamp.

The Good Son by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (1990) – Dang, but choosing a Nick Cave album for this list was a task. Nearly every album has more high points than lows. I was leaning towards Push The Sky Away which is so beautiful. Other contenders were The Boatman’s Call (beautiful and perfect but closely associated with a difficult time in my life) and Let Love In (great, but I don’t really need to hear Red Right Hand again – it seem to show up everywhere!). When I got into this album, I was still mourning my father who died in 1986 when I was 19. The father/son dialogue of The Weeping Song (YouTube link) spoke volumes to me in its invitation to reconciliation. The son asks in turn why the women, men, and children are all weeping, and finally asks, ‘Father, why are you weeping? / I never thought I hurt you so much,’ with the word ‘hurt’ is stretched out to seven or eight syllables.

Lady In Satin by Billie Holiday (1958) – This is such a strange album – it’s late in Lady Day’s career – one of her last albums, released a year before her death at the age of 44. Her voice is much thinner than it was in her prime, but somehow more expressive. The orchestration is lush and befitting the songs she chose. Violets for Your Furs (YouTube link) and I Get Along Without You Very Well are particularly poignant. My mom or sister bought it when I was in high school and at 15 or so, I definitely didn’t get it. On someone’s recommendation I came back to Billie a few years later with a cassette of Lady Sings The Blues which was in heavy rotation on my walkman for many years. The sheer weight of Lady In Satin, with its lush orchestration started to mean something to me when I turned about 40. A few years ago, I found a 180-gram reissue and my heart just sings when I listen to it now.

Dømkirke by SUNN O))) (2008) – This is definitely the odd one out in my collection. It’s 60 minutes of drone metal and feedback, made melodic and holy. SUNN O))) (pronounced Sun) are known for shows of punishing volume, the use of deep feedback and strange guitar tunings, but that put the listener in an altered state if they come with open ears. While the shows I’ve seen have been in performance spaces, this set was constructed for a one-off show at the titular Dømkirke church in Bergen, Norway. (To be fair, Paradiso in Amsterdam was once a church, but it’s been a concert venue for several decades.) The band’s lineup for this show included vocalist Attila Csihar whose bass rumblings compliment the guitars of founders Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson. My favourite of the four tracks is probably Cannon, but telling the differences between any set of SUNN O))) songs is its own exercise. (Greg Anderson, AKA The Lord, recently released a collaboration with Petra Haden called Devotional (Bandcamp link), which may overtake Dømkirke if you ask me in a year. It’s glorious.)
Favourite track: Cannon (YouTube link)
Bandcamp link: Dømkirke

USA by King Crimson (1975) – I had a very hard time choosing a KC album. They’ve been one of my favourite bands for ages. I think my choice was between this live album and Larks’ Tongues In Aspic (represented here with three tracks – part two of the title instrumental, the ballad Exiles and Easy Money, but not Talking Drum). USA was recorded over two dates on the 1974 tour for Starless and Bible Black, but released as an obituary of sorts after its followup, Red. (USA was not a contractual obligations album the way the near-bootleg quality Earthling was a couple of years before.) This version of the band imploded during the recording of Red and there was no tour for it. Even though some of David Cross’ violin work was overdubbed after by Eddie Jobson, this era was intense and beautiful and never matched. I probably bought my first copy of USA sometime in the 90s. Previously I’d most liked the early 80s incarnation with Adrian Belew on vocals and Tony Levin on Bass (alongside founding guitarist Robert Fripp and drummer Bill Bruford), but I picked up Larks’ Tongues on the recommendation of my then partner’s violin teacher for the intensity of Cross’ work. I then delved into the ‘72-‘74 period (Fripp, Bruford, Cross, John Wetton on bass/vocal) with more interest. For me, the version of LTIA Part II here is one of the best I’ve heard. (It’s been in their set lists for all lineups from this period through the tours of the last 10 or 12 years.) And the version of USA that I’d want is the 2002 reissue that includes Fracture and Starless (the studio version of which is on Red. Fracture is an insane instrumental that was the result of Fripp wanting to write a piece that he himself would find too difficult to play. And it blows my mind whenever I hear it.

Standout improvisation: Asbury Park (YouTube link)

Island records advert for King Crimson’s USA. Band credits and a representation of the album cover are below the name of the band and album in large type.

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Here I look at Lady Day’s final years. She was madly prolific, and along with dozens of classic tracks, recorded two of vocal jazz’s definitive albums: Lady Sings the Blues and Lady in Satin.
Billie’s Blues – Part 1

1955    Music for Torching (Clef) /
1956    Velvet Mood (Clef)
Recorded: August 23 & August 25, 1955

Recorded only six months after Stay with Me, you can hear Billie’s voice start to falter in front of this tight combo.

Donald Clarke, in his biography of Lady Day, Wishing on the Moon, (2000) indicates that Billie was in general in a bad way in these years – the 1954 sessions were contentious due to various hangers on and alcohol. The man she was with, a “mafia enforcer” (according to Wikipedia) and pimp named Louis McKay, who took all the money she made and kept her in a state of malnutrition.

This collection very much adheres to the themes of unrequited love suggested by the title, and her phrasing is still pretty tight. On a JATP bill she shared with Ella Fitzgerald during this period, the second half of her set was a bit of a mess – something she blamed on Oscar Peterson (with whom she never worked again), though one guesses it was the drugs. I’m not sure whether this is the show that was released as Live at JATP. In ’54 she cleaned up briefly, but by the end of the year was using again.

Clarke (who isn’t exactly objective in his writing) states that the combo on Music for Torching is “one of the best line-ups Lady ever had.” The subject matter is, as always, love, about equally balanced between requited and not. Come Rain or Come Shine, A Fine Romance, I Get a Kick out of You, and Isn’t This a Lovely Day fall in the first category, though you can hear the longing in them. Isn’t This a Lovely Day, which closes side two, is especially poignant, with her voice playing off the Benny Carter’s alto sex just before a beautiful trumpet solo from Harry “Sweets” Edison.

On the other hand, Gone with the Wind, I Don’t Want to Cry Anymore and I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You really point up the album’s title – these are songs about carrying a torch for a love that’s gone. Her phrasing is still the top, but the range is further diminished.

What’s interesting here is the production. Carter and Edison feel far from the microphones, giving the impression she’s singing in an empty room. When the guitar (Barney Kessel again) comes in, and then the piano, they’re much closer, as though replying to the one she’s addressing – the ghost made flesh – in the refrain: “If you’d surrender, just for a kiss or two, you might discover that I’m the lover meant for you, and I’ll be true. But what’s the good of scheming; I know I must be dreaming, for I don’t stand a ghost of a chance with you.” The piano solo (Jimmy Rowles, a graduate of Lester Young, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey among others, replacing Peterson) might be the reply the singer longs for, but the repeated refrain after the solo returns to the echoing horns.

Velvet Mood leans more towards the melancholy and the arrangements/production put the Billie’s voice more to the front and most of the tracks. The only up-tempo pieces are Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone (weird, given the lyrical content of the piece, though other arrangements are similarly upbeat) and Nice Work If You Can Get It.

I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues is, in many ways, an extended showcase for Kessel whose solo takes up the middle third of this six-minute track and is almost a blues sermon on its own.

1956 Lady Sings the Blues (Clef)
Recorded: June 6 & 7, 1956, September 3, 1954

Before you read further, listen to Strange Fruit. If you haven’t before, listen carefully. This had been one of Holiday’s signature tunes since its composition in the 1930s. There were times she was forbidden by club owners to sing it.

Around 1998, I took a three or 4-hour drive with a girl who acted and sang in musical theatre and had wide-ranging musical tastes. I had a few tapes in her car, including Live at JATP. At that late date, Strange Fruit still shocked on first listen.

That said, this album was my intro to Lady Day. I bought a Japanese cassette of it in 1986 and it spent a lot of time in my tape player. I’m not sure who recommended it to me – it’s nothing like anything I was listening to at the time, but from Chalie Shaver’s opening trumpet blast on the title track, I was hooked.

For this album, Holiday re-recorded eight earlier hits and four new songs (the title track, Too Marvelous for Words, Willow Weep for Me, and I Thought About You) to coincide with the release of her ghost-written autobiography. The arrangements reflect those of the earlier Clef albums. Songs of love and loss are punctuated by God Bless The Child, (for which, like the title track, Holiday shares a writing credit) about the importance of self-reliance, and Strange Fruit. Strange Fruit, an absolutely chilling song about lynching in the South, had been in Holiday’s repertoire since its composition in the late 1930s. The song and its writer, Abel Meeropol, have a very interesting history. A socialist, Meeropol later adopted the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were executed for passing nuclear secrets to the Soviets at the start of the Cold War. You can find a brief history of the song (and a long digression on the connections between Stalinism and the US Democratic party) here.

In terms of the arrangement of the album and the arrangements of the songs, it’s always struck me that the title track and Strange Fruit have these crazy trumpet blasts. Donald Clarke complains “the only studio recording of ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ has an introduction and a finish with a drum-roll and open trumpet, sounding like bullfight music. ‘Strange Fruit’ also gets open horn, and for once Shavers indeed sounds overbearing, partly because of the recording quality.”

Despite having been recorded in three different sessions (tracks 1-8 being the July, 1958 dates in New York, 9-12 coming from 1954 dates in California with no overlapping players), it comes off to me as being a unified whole. Again, this was my intro to her and I’d never heard anything like it. Critical dismissal of this or that aspect of it doesn’t really hit me. These are the versions I know best – earlier recordings, even though she’s in better voice, don’t sound as good to my ear.

1957 Songs for Distingué Lovers (Verve)
Recorded: January 3, 4, 7, & 8, 1957

Originally only six tracks, all from what’s become known as the American Songbook. The album includes one Rogers/Hart, two Johnny Mercers, a Gershwin brothers, and a Porter, rounded out by the Parrish/Perkins composition Stars Fell on Alabama. It continues the small group work she’d been doing in the 50s on Verve. The group includes several who are on the earlier sessions including Edison Webster, Kessel, and Red Mitchell.

And as had been usual at this point, the voices of the musicians seem to outshine Holiday’s own declining vocal talents, but again, her phrasing is still impeccable. She and Webster almost have a duet going on Mercer/Allen’s One For My Baby (And One More for the Road), a song that Frank Sinatra recorded for three different albums in the 50s, notably Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely the following year. (His 1947 version is much more upbeat, while the ’58 is much closer to Billie’s.)

I think this late version of Porter’s Just One of Those Things feels a little forced vocally, but it has several fantastic solos. Kessel, Edison, and Webster each provide beautiful solos that flow with the seemingly effortless playing they always displayed.

The closing I Didn’t Know What Time It Was has the vocal regret the lyrics seem to demand, when she sings “Yes I’m wise and I know what time it is now,” it’s sounds clear that she does.

BillieHoliday_AllOrNothingAtAll1958 All or Nothing at All (Verve)
Recorded: August 14 & 18, 1956, January 3, 7, & 8, 1957

From the same sessions that produced Songs for Distingué Lovers, you can hear the same diminishing voice, but excellent phrasing and the accompaniment is spot on. There’s not much to distinguish these last two albums from one another – it’s mostly a matter, I’m guessing, of what Verve chose to release. I don’t know if she was at the end of her contract (much as Miles was with Prestige) and met her obligations by letting them take what was useful from the sessions. In keeping with the album’s title, the songs alternate between those that deal in love and those that suggest love’s ending.

Weill and Nash’s Speak Low seems prescient, “Love is pure gold and time a thief / We’re late, darling, we’re late / The curtain descends, ev’rything ends too soon, too soon” and she handles it with the sadness and resignation the song demands.

Another interesting item is I Wished on the Moon, an unlikely song of requited love both because Billie seems rarely sang any so straight up romantic as this one, and because its lyricist, Dorothy Parker, was known for her caustic wit. (Compare the lyrics to I Wished on the Moon to Parker’s poem One Perfect Rose.)

Well, the romance doesn’t last long. I Wished on the Moon is followed by the Gershwin’s But Not For Me, in an upbeat, swinging arrangement. The fact remains, that this one is about the love others seem to have that the singer does not.

Berlin’s Say It Isn’t So begins with only Jimmy Rowles’ sparse piano for accompaniment. At the bridge Edison and Alvin Stoller join on trumpet and lightly brushed drums. Webster’s saxophone comes in for the final verse, bringing the mood up a little, but the retaining the song’s air of despair. Finally, the Gershwins’ Our Love Is Here to Stay brings the All back.

1958 Lady in Satin (Columbia)
Recorded: February 19, 20, & 21, 1958

Lady Day’s final album was in fact the first of her music I heard. Either my mother or my sister bought the album in ’81 or so. I wasn’t sure what to make of Ray Ellis’ orchestral arrangements. I first heard these songs before Linda Ronstadt brought fully orchestrated music back to the top 40 with her Nelson Riddle collaborations (What’s New, 1983; Lush Life, 1984; For Sentimental Reasons, 1986), and was mostly listening to rock and new wave at the time anyway.

On a certain level, one can accept the Penguin Guide’s comment that this album is “a voyeuristic look at a beaten woman,” but that’s rather unfair. Despite the complete loss of her upper range, the production keeps her vocals at the forefront of the music. Unlike the small sessions on Verve, the orchestra often act as more of a wall of sound behind the voice.

Hoagy Carmichael’s I Get Along Without You Very Well is oddly well served by its slightly broken vocals. I’ve forgotten you just like I should / What a fool am I to think my breaking heart could kid the moon.

For me, the standout track is Violets for Your Furs. The simple bass line carries Holiday’s voice though distant violin blizzards. The bridge features a beautiful interplay of strings and trombone (there are four on the album – not sure who plays that section) that evoke the winter day blue sky that she sings of.

It seems there were initially two editions of the album – the stereo version had eleven tracks and closed with I’ll Be Around. The mono version closed with The End of a Love Affair. The narrator of I’ll Be Around carries the same lyrical torch as that of I Get Along Without You Very Well – one that indicates, you know when you’re done with that floozy who’s caught your eye, I’ll still be there. It fits with the album, but it’s an odd note to close on.

The End of a Love Affair (which oddly has a stereo mix which is available on a 1997 reissue) seems to be tacked on as well. It’s a beautiful evocation of what the jilted lover feels. The instrumentalists are more the spotlight of the song as well, almost overpowering the vocals. The combination of songs and arrangements is wonderful, but when it came time to put the album together, the producers didn’t quite know what to do. But Beautiful or For All We Know might have been better choices, but they didn’t have me to make the perfect track listing.

After Lady In Satin, Holiday, Ellis, and a smaller group (fewer strings, no choir, but Harry Edison in the group) convened for sessions on which she said she wanted “to sound like Sinatra.” The recordings were completed in March, 1959. In July, her excesses took their final toll and she died at the age of 44. MGM released the album with the title Last Recordings, but I think they were just cashing in. It certainly swings with songs that she might have done justice to earlier in her career, but her voice is positively shot. It’s not so fitting a coda to her career as theprevious, but she takes chances with the selection. While You Took Advantage of Me and Baby Won’t You Please Come Home come off as a little bit embarrassing, Just One More Chance is really quite poignant, and All the Way showcases her phrasing and style. Alas, Ellis himself took over the production tasks and didn’t have the chops that Irving Townshend brought to Lady In Satin.



Prior to the 1950s, Billie Holiday recorded primarily singles. From 1952 until her death at the age of 44 in 1959, Lady Day recorded ten studio albums and three live albums, primarily for the Verve label (and its Clef subsidiary). She recorded her final album, 1958’s Lady in Satin, for Columbia.

This last period of her life was marked by a lot of personal strife, including abusive relationships, as well as heroin addiction, but even on that final album, she’s well in control of her talents, though her voice had lost a lot of its range.

The thing to remember about these albums is that, unlike her earlier work, these are their own set pieces, not standalone singles, or collections of singles. Of course, this isn’t true only of Billie’s work – it’s the nature of the music business in general in the 1950s– with the advent of LPs, artists, label, and producers began to conceive of pieces listeners would enjoy at a sitting, generally in front of a large console hi-fi system.

By this period, the recording art had become such that the instrumental solos get as much attention as Holiday’s vocals. I don’t think in recording she was ever less than generous with the people who played with her, but on these late albums the band members all get a chance to shine.

1952    Billie Holiday Sings / Recorded: March 26, 1952 (Clef)

This eight-song 10” (extended to 12 and renamed Solitude for the 12” 1956 rerelease) maintains a mostly upbeat take on love with gently swinging arrangements. On the one hand, producer Norman Granz keeps the instrumentation light and Billie’s voice to the front. On the other, her interplay with the musicians, notably Charlie Shaver’s muted trumpet on Solitude and Oscar Peterson’s piano on Blue Moon, highlight how well she used her voice as an instrument in much the way Ella and Sarah Vaughan did. I recall hearing her version I Only Have Eyes For You sometime in the 90s and falling in love with it. I was already familiar with a lot of her work, but only knew the slower 1959 version by the Flamingos.

1953    An Evening with BilliImagee Holiday / Recorded: April 1, 1952 & July 27, 1952 (Clef)

This is an altogether more down affair than Billie Holiday Sings. Stormy Weather sets the tone – this is a collection of lost love and love on the rocks songs. While My Man, He’s Funny That Way, and Tenderly address love as a good thing, the tempo and timing are as sad as those on opener Stormy Weather. On the other side of the coin, closer Remember addresses a lover who has strayed, but with a much happier the tempo. This track also features a pair of really nice solos from Peterson and Barney Kessel. (At the time Kessel and bassist Ray Brown rounded out the Oscar Peterson Trio, though Kessel only stayed a year.)

1954    Billie Holiday / Recorded: April 1, 1952 & April 14, 1954 (Clef)

As you can see all three of these albums came out of sessions that occurred in a four month period, and with many of the same players on all sessions. That said, the musicians are all at the top of the game. The playlist has all eight tracks because they weren’t obviously available on Spotify in sequence. Listen, in particular to Everything I Have Is Yours. Billie and tenor man Flip Philips are engaging in a sweet dialogue. As with the first two sets, the songs strike a melancholy balance between love and lost love. The closing tracks, however, positively swing. What a Little Moonlight Can Do features another fantastic solo from Peterson and some sweet trumpet work from Charlie Shavers while I Cried For You, a defiant kiss-off to a faithless lover is notable for its building intensity.

1955    Stay with Me / Recorded: February 14, 1955 (Verve)

This seven-song result of a single recording session with Tony Scott’s orchestra and features on side A a couple of longer pieces (each well over six minutes) sandwiching a modern take on Fats Waller’s 1929 hit Ain’t Misbehavin’. (I’ve added a Waller rendition to the playlist as well, for a contrast.) These are strange recordings in that the solos really stretch out. Everything Happens To Me, with its line “I’m just a girl who never looks before she jumps” has the not quite defeated feeling of the classic recordings of Good Morning Heartache and Travelin’ Light off Lady Sings The Blues recorded the following year. The sequencing of the album reflects that of Billie Holiday, with two swingers on side B, I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm and Irving Berlin’s Always, though it closes with a thoughtful rendition of Ellington’s Do Nothing ‘Til You Hear From Me.