Billie Holiday ‘Four Classic Albums – Second Set’ 2CD (Avid Jazz) 4/5

Singer Billie Holiday needs no introduction and is one of the iconic musicians of the twentieth-century. She has already been the subject of a previous retrospective on Avid and this second installment focuses on two distinctive periods: the early part of her career in the mid-late 1940s when she recorded in a variety of settings from trio to larger orchestra; the mature period of the 1950s when Holiday recorded with smaller combos. On the second compilation, ‘The Blues are Brewin’, the album is notable for the inclusion of two duets between Holiday and the great Louis Armstrong, ‘My sweet Hunk o’ Trash’ and ‘You Can’t Lose A Broken Heart’. What a pity then that no record label saw fit to record an entire album’s worth of these two stars together as was the case between Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald a decade later on Verve.

To these ears, while the voice was already memorable on the lush orchestral sides (these were not original albums, but rather a combination of assembled 78s of the era and as such they criss-cross small and large group dates, and veer towards the more conservative side of Billie’s repertoire), it is the latter 1950s sides that are of the greatest interest to jazz fans. ‘Solitude’, from 1952, features a stellar cast of accompanying musicians, some of whom would regularly perform with Holiday live and in the studio. They include guitarist Barney Kessel, tenorist Flip Phillips, Oscar Peterson on piano and Ray Brown on the bass, with interchangeable drummers, Of the mainly US songbook repertoire, the two Cole Porter interpretations, ‘Easy To Love’, taken at a relaxed pace and, ‘Love For Sale’, impress while, ‘Blue Moon’, is a song ideally suited to the Holiday treatment.

Even stronger still, and regarded by some as Billie Holiday’s greatest later period recording, ‘Songs for Distingué Lovers’, from a 1957 recording on Verve, finds Holiday surrounded by the cream of mainstream jazz instrumentalists. Once again, Barney Kessel is present, but on this occasion, he is accompanied by Ben Webster on tenor, Harry Edison on trumpet, Jimmy Rowles on piano, Red Mitchell on bass and Larry Bunker on drums. The lengthier songs, just six in total, allow far greater freedom to the soloists of which the voice of Holiday is an integral part. An impeccable line up of the great writers from Arlen and Gershwin through to Rodgers and Hart are highlighted. Definitive vocal versions of some of the evergreens include a stunning ‘Day In, Day Out’, a laid back blues in, ‘A Foggy Day’, and an uptempo, ‘Just One Of Those Things’. Jazz singers ever since have used this as the template from which to attempt covers of the standards, but it is doubtful that anyone will approach this standard of performance. The early sides will certainly be of interest to completists and are now hard to find, while general listeners can marvel at the later material. Either way, the music comes highly recommended.

Tim Stenhouse

Read also: Billie Holiday ‘Lady Love – Live in Basel 1954’ (Poll Winners) 4/5