Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Billie Holiday: Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday On Columbia 1933–1944

Many box sets peter out somewhere in the third disc, a common point in an artist's career at which the price of fame begins to sap artistic ambition. Many jazz boxes, catering to the completist instincts of fans, get bogged down in their pursuit of exhaustive detail. So it flies against logic that Lady Day, a Billie Holiday box featuring every recording made during her prime years at Columbia, should feel too short even at 10 discs. But then, just about every aspect of Holiday's career defies logic. At best, her voice stretched just beyond a full octave, a pitiable range when compared to other jazz singers. Yet in powers of vocal interpretation, Holiday was rivaled only by the similarly inhibited Louis Armstrong, her role model alongside Bessie Smith. That power makes Lady Day virtually free of filler. Whether handed "They Can't Take That Away From Me" or "A Sailboat In The Moonlight," Holiday knew how to bring out the best in a song. Scatting may have been as unfamiliar to her as an upper register, but her ability to stretch and bend syllables to a song's emotional needs made her voice one of the most powerful instruments in jazz. Lady Day begins on the unpromising note of Holiday's first recorded side, the borderline novelty number "Your Mother's Son-In-Law," cut with Benny Goodman in late 1933, shortly after John Hammond discovered Holiday singing bawdy tunes in a nightclub. By the time Holiday recorded again in 1935, she had come into her own, and the songs that follow, from now-standards like "These Foolish Things" to Holiday's own "Billie's Blues," sound perfect. Subsequent recordings, impossibly, improve on those tracks by introducing some sidemen from Kansas City, particularly the great tenor saxophonist Lester Young. In Young, Holiday found an accompanist so sympathetic that the songs they performed together became virtual duets. But by the end of Holiday's tenure at Columbia, she and Young had been driven apart by competing addictions. Their split was only one of the many results of the tension between Holiday's personal life and her artistry. More than most music, her work lends itself to biographical interpretation, with its knowing world-weariness, its narcotic cadence, and its almost masochistic acceptance that love has to hurt. But the life that ultimately proved her undoing had yet to overwhelm her during the period covered on Lady Day, which features the sound of Holiday exercising her powers to their fullest. If there were enough such material to fill 20 discs, it wouldn't suffice.