This is the most vital reissue of timeless, historically important American music since Legacy's lauded boxed set of Louis Armstrong's Hot Five/Hot Seven recordings last year.
This is the most vital reissue of timeless, historically important American music since Legacy's lauded boxed set of Louis Armstrong's Hot Five/Hot Seven recordings last year. Certainly, this 10-disc Holiday project is easier on the modern ear—all the material, 230 tracks, was recorded during the electric recording era. With the vastly updated remastering (the earlier CD reissues of this material reflect the no-noise, kill-the-ambience penchant of that era), Lady Day is a sonic wonder. Remastering aces Mark Wilder and Seth Foster, along with the various transfer engineers, should be especially congratulated. Holiday was still in her teens when she began recording in 1933 (and in earnest by 1935) for labels that eventually became part of Columbia Records. By the mid-'30s, it was clear that Holiday was a major talent, the most breathtaking, breakthrough jazz singer of the time. She phrased with her light but pliant voice like a jazz instrumentalist, with vibrant and unerrant rhythmic sensibilities. Holiday thought nothing of "re-composing" songs, changing a written melody here and there and flirting with the "square" phrasing of a Tin Pan Alley tune, particularly playing with time, holding back, riding it, and anticipating it so deftly and true that she changed the way singers interpret songs in modern times. At the same time, her performances have been arrows to the heart for generations of listeners. Holiday's later recordings featured her as a chanteuse and then a tragedian. But her earlier material showcases an energetic go-getter member of an all-star ensemble of swing giants, producing irresistible barnburners and deeply soulful ballads. It's hard to think of anyone who ever bettered her renditions of "Solitude," "You Go to My Head," "These Foolish Things," "Body and Soul," or "Night and Day." What makes many of these early recordings even more amazing is that Holiday and her studio bands often turned base metal into gold; many of the tunes they were given were definitely not in the same league of those just mentioned. A song like "It's Like Wishing on the Moon," if not sung and swung by Holiday and Co., would have been long forgotten. Also, amazingly, the producers have unearthed 35 unreleased tracks, most of them full alternate (next to best) takes— a cause for close listening and celebration. This mammoth package of young Billie has Grammy Award written all over it. Legacy has also accompanied this set with the more affordable two-CD Lady Day: The Best of Billie Holiday.—BH