A Tribute to Billie Holiday
This is the latest jazz legend tribute album paying homage to Lady Day with modern interpretations of her classics from present day artists from all genres. As noted in the liner notes, the album is the inspiration of the tribute album's producer, Peter Stomare, who has gathered a cadre of very talented artists like Esperanza Spalding, Anita Baker, Angela Bassett, and Boz Scaggs to perform covers of the beloved jazz/blues singer.
I was enthusiastically hopeful listening to track one's "Intro." Angela Bassett truly captures the rawness of Billie Holiday exceptionally with spoken word excerpts from her ghostwritten autobiographical book, Lady Sings the Blues, played over a modern blues version of "God Bless the Child." Ms. Bassett's readings in this track, and sprinkled intermittently between several of the album tracks, are the ties that bind some of the songs with Ms. Holiday's life. The audio snippets left an indelible impression on me, leaving me wanting more, and wishing Ms. Bassett would record an entire audiobook of Lady Sings the Blues -- or better yet, play the lead in a one-act play as Billie Holiday at Circle-In-The-Square.
Unfortunately, most of the rest of the album quickly lost direction and focus. Mr. Stomare could have so much more to bring us, the listener, on a musical and biographical journey of Billie Holiday's world, and more importantly, make the case why she has touched so many artists over the decades. I'm left questioning what the recording artists found so special about Billie Holiday as opposed to covering a jazz standard that just happened to be a cover that was well performed. Not all of the songs on the album were co-written by Ms. Holiday, so unless one intimately knows the time and context of her songs, we're left go guess why that song is on the album in the first place. Patti Austin's cover of "Body and Soul" is one example. It is a classic jazz standard not co-written by Ms. Holiday, and has been re-interpreted in so many memorable ways by other jazz artists like the immortal Stan Getz or Ella Fitzgerald, among others. Yes, Ms. Holiday performed this wonderfully live at the the Philharmonic Auditorium, but why not let us know that? At least include some liner notes with quotes from each contributing artist on why they chose to perform that cover and what they bring to the song.
One of Billie Holiday's best known songs, "God Bless The Child," performed by Brownstone, turns out to be an overproduced cool jazz version of what I imagined could have been an intimate conversation, imparting a bit of wisdom from the woman who grew up in poverty in the slums of society. Yes, Blood, Sweat, and Tears had the wonderfully arranged and popular '70s cover which weaved in latin jazz rhythms, but then again, that cover is not on this album, and as far as I'm concerned, they made this song so much their own that for me, it's a BST song that just happens to be written by Billie Holiday.
The biggest disappointment on the album is Babyface's cover of "Strange Fruit," which was probably the biggest offender in deviating from what made this song a Billie Holiday classic. Billie Holiday's fans know well that the essence of "Strange Fruit" portrays an eerily subdued and haunting picture brush-stroked with Ms. Holiday's passively resigned and morbid tone. It is a beautifully written social commentary so sadly sung by our vocal heroine. Instead, the listener gets this overproduced version of Babyface wailing up and down the vocal registers in the backdrop of a huge multi-piece band as if he were a contestant on "American Idol."
On a positive note, Boz Scaggs cover of "Do Nothing 'Till You Hear From Me" was a pleasant surprise, in what may be the most genuine version paying homage -- simple, raw, understated with a laudable attempt to sing it in the Billie Holiday classic style. Angela Bassett follows up with an excerpt on her court plea of guilty to be sent to rehab for drug abuse, providing a nice transition to Rickie Lee Jones' "They Can't Take That Away From Me". Another notable cover is "Good Morning Heartache" from Renee Olstead -- also a highlight to Billie purists with a wink at Lady Day's vocal style that subtly pushes the lyrics ever so slightly ahead or behind the chord, like the anticipation built of sweet and thick molasses leaving a jar to hit the bowl of sweet bread batter.
Admittedly, there are so many talented artists on this album with great renditions of a jazz songs that can stand on their own. If this album was marketed as a jazz classics collection from today's artists, I would have probably liked it so much better. But it wasn't and as a result, I'm looking for the essence of Billie Holiday in this album and not finding it overall. It could have been better produced so that our current younger generations are reminded why fascinatingly talented but tragic singers like Amy Winehouse have clearly drawn from Lady Day.
Maybe the takeaway is to approach this as a simple jazz cover album with a loose tie to people who just happen to like Billie Holiday. Maybe the target audience is fans of the artists on the album that are looking for expanded works. Esperanza Spalding has such a talented fusion artist that we really couldn't care what she covered as long as we knew it was her? If you're not looking for an integrated tribute, then give a listen to this album. Those that are new will get some introductory insight into a wonderfully sad and tragic woman that has seared her name in the annals of American blues and jazz. And to those purists, keep an open mind and listen to this album as another motivation to pull out all your old LPs or your old and musty paperback copy of Lady Sings the Blues, and revisit why Billie Holiday keeps pulling our heartstrings after so many years.