November 14, 2002

Ed's Underground

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As the Stones song goes, “it’s the singer, not the song,” and there’s no better proof of it than Billie Holiday. Her unique voice and phrasing allowed her to reinterpret and invigorate any song (including some truly banal ones), turning anything she sang into instant genius. She could’ve been singing from the phone book and it would’ve sounded beautiful and emotional.

The peak of her career was her time spent on Columbia for over a decade in the ’30s and ’40s, and this collection is a great introduction to that era of her impressive catalogue (though the 10-disc box set this sampler is culled from is also worthwhile). These two discs are arranged roughly chronologically, and the most striking thing about them is that we don’t necessarily hear steady improvement, but instead an assortment of consistently high quality performances.

With the possible exception of the slightly hokey (but still nice) “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” all 36 songs feature a timeless vocal style backed by minimal, tasteful jazz arrangements. Holiday turns the corny “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” into a soulful, smoldering piece with her distinctive emotional heft.

She’s just as adept at interpreting more well-known numbers, as when she transforms the Gershwins’ celebratory classic “Summertime” into a downbeat hymn of restrained depression. “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” was later popularized by Sinatra, but Billie’s earlier take is better: much more low-key and contemplative. Her “Night and Day” rendition seems to be the template for Sinatra’s adaptation; traces of Billie’s elegant phrasing remain in Ol’ Blue Eyes’ song.

Billie’s oeuvre has remained timeless for nearly seventy years now — not an easy feat. Without fail, she poured her all into each performance. It’s because of this — and the exceptional bands she was accompanied by — that her music has never sounded dated.

Archived article by Ed Howard