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Singing from the heart

This is jazz: Billie Holiday
Sony Music
Rs. 100

One of the three great female vocalists of the swing era of jazz, Billie Holiday did not match the musical virtuosity of Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan. She didn't need to: her voice had an emotional intensity (often unfortunately degenerating, in my opinion, into whining) that made it a unique vehicle for sad, romantic ballads. Her deprived childhood and unhappy drug-ridden career probably enhanced the realism of such songs, although the drugs later spoiled her voice and gave it a rasping feel.

When she started leading her own orchestra, Holiday was able, more than Vaughan and Fitzgerald, to gather behind her many of the most talented instrumentalists of jazz. She inherited this ability from bandleaders she had earlier sung for.

Most of the numbers on this cassette date from the late '30s (one is from 1941), and whether she leads or is part of Teddy Wilson's orchestra, the personnel are some of the greatest jazzmen of the time. As a result, although quite often hers is the starring role, and she doesn't improvise, the instrumentalists frequently come up with brilliant solos. Examples are Roy Eldridge (trumpet) on God bless the child, Ben Webster (tenor saxophone) and Benny Goodman (clarinet) on Pennies from heaven, and her (Platonic) friend and guide Lester Young (tenor saxophone) on This year's kisses.

The pièce de resistance in this respect is Fine and mellow. Dating from 1957, it has an all-star cast comprising the three great tenor saxophonists of Holiday's time, Young, Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, Doc Cheatham on the trumpet, and Vic Dickenson on trombone, besides Jo Jones on drums. All of the first five contribute solos, offsetting the rasping voice which is just right for a sad, sardonic number about love. The light-hearted What a little moonlight can do and the irreverent A fine romance are two other pieces that break the general romantic mood of Holiday's singing.


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