By the mid-1950s the combined ravages of drug addiction and a dysfunctional life style had taken its toll on Billie Holiday and the vocal range had become more limited. However, within those parameters Holiday was still fully capable of achieving moments of sheer magic. Thus it is with this approach in mind that one should view what amounts to a snapshot of a European tour from 1954 that takes in the singer mainly accompanied by a trio in Switzerland and, to a lesser extent, surrounded by an augmented band of vibes, clarinet and guitar in Brussels.
This is the nearest thing that most of us will ever get to hearing Billie Holiday in a live context and Poll Winners are to be congratulated for having provided us with as comprehensive a re-issue as is possible with extremely generous bonus songs from earlier in her career, from 1951 with a similar trio and a much earlier orchestral date. In terms of song selection, Holiday samples the main lyricists of the era such as Rodgers and Hart, Hammerstein and fellow jazz musicians such as Fats Waller. What is sometimes overlooked is that she wrote her own songs and a couple are featured here. It should be stated that some of the standards are performed in truncated form (with all the feel of mini medleys) with ‘Blue Moon’ and ‘Lover come back to me’ especially fine examples. However, on ‘I cried for you’, Holiday demonstrates what a superior act she was in suddenly taking the tempo all the way up with the trio in hot pursuit in the second half after a somewhat sedate introduction. That said, the singer excels on the slower ballad material and an English language version of ‘My man’, while ‘Don’t explain’ which Holiday co-wrote has seldom been more lovingly executed. Of major interest is the self-penned ‘Billie’s Blues’ that lasts all of eleven and a half minutes and features the floating clarinet of Buddy de Franco and extended piano solos by both Sonny Clark and Beryl Booker. Above all else, we have the opportunity to hear Billie ad-lib on this essentially blues-inflected number and it is a major highlight. Clark’s participation in the concert is certainly fleeting and one is left to wonder what studios recordings between singer and pianist might have yielded. Certainly, Holiday was sensitive to high quality pianists and attracted Mal Waldron and Teddy Wilson among others.
Previously released as a United Artists LP for the Basel concert alone, this excellent CD weighs in at almost seventy-five minutes with numerous bonus tracks. Full marks to Poll Winners for the beautifully illustrated inner sleeve that includes covers of previous vinyl issues, graphic drawings of Lady Day and wonderful colour photos of the singer that truly bring her to life. Only marginally short of a five-star billing and, like the original Down Beat review that is also included here, a fine example of the singer live and the sound quality is surprisingly good given that it was taken from a tape recording.