The Jazz.com Blog
February 11, 2008 · 2 comments
When I see the words "Rare Live Recordings" on the cover of a jazz CD, I generally run in the other direction. Of course, I like a rarity as much as the next obscurantist, and "live" is always preferable to "dead." But these terms are usually signs that some awful sounding tape (if not a more primitive recording medium) has been dug out of someone's garage or basement, where it has sat deteriorating for decades.
The jazz fan is regaled with more hisses than a villain at a TV wrestling bout, more scratches than a poison ivy sufferer, and more audio gaps than a Nixon Watergate tape. And behind all this, hides some mal-treated music, of lesser or greater proportions, suffering in all its splendor.
The first Charlie Parker LPs I purchased as a youngster were Bird at St. Nick's and Bird on 52nd Street, and it is amazing that I ever dipped into my allowance money for another live bebop recording after these unfortunate experiences. A warning label should have been placed on the covers of these offerings, announcing: The Surgeon General Warns: The Sound Quality Inside May Be Hazardous to Your Ears. Bird may very well have been playing on 52nd Street, but the recording device could not have been any closer than 53rd or 54th. True, Parker devotees may have been grateful for these "rare, live recordings," but I wonder how many potential fans have been turned off and turned away over the years because labels are not honest in marketing these sub-par products.
So if I frowned and snarled when I recently encountered a box set of five CDs featuring Billie Holiday (released on the ESP label as Rare Live Recordings 1934-1959), please forgive my ill humor. My admiration for Ms. Holiday knows no bounds, but I worried that this would be another case of poorly recorded, second-rate material foisted on an unsuspecting public. And with Lady Day, whose artistry is built on micro-tonal nuances, good audio fidelity is almost essential in appreciating her work. She deserved a Rudy Van Gelder, but instead (I feared) these would be tracks recorded with stone, paper and scissors.
I am so happy to report that I was wrong. (Now there is a true rarity, a music critic admitting to mistakes.) These Holiday tracks are not just acceptable, they are exceptional. And I am not just talking about sound quality (which is quite fine and mellow), but even more about the music itself.
Here is a small taste of the gems included in this set
(1) The First Esquire All-Star Concert from 1944, where Holiday is accompanied by Art Tatum, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Roy Eldridge, Jack Teagarden and a host of other jazz legends.
(2) The Second Esquire All-Star Concert from 1945, which finds Billie singing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra (and receiving an award and warm praise from Jerome Kern(!), who would be dead before the end of the year).
(3) Holiday at age twenty-six singing to an enthusiastic audience, whooping and hollering, at Monroe's (the after hours house where bebop was born) in 1941.
(4) A 1937 recording from Harlem's famous Savoy Ballroom, capturing a 22 year-old Billie Holiday in an exultant mood while backed by the Count Basie band.
(5) Lady Day joining Stan Getz on stage at Storyville in 1951 in one of her most energetic performances of the decade.
(6) Holiday inspired by the historical setting of the Apollo Theater in several live performances.
(7) Billie sharing the state at Carnegie Hall with Count Basie in 1955.
(8) Lady Day on television on The Tonight Show and other broadcasts, including her remarkable 1957 performance of "Fine and Mellow" on CBS—often lauded at the finest jazz moment ever broadcast on national television.
You get the idea . . . These are not just small town gigs with forgotten pick-up bands. Rather these tracks represent nothing less than a series of remarkable milestones in the career of jazz's most celebrated female vocalist.
So don't run away from these "rare live recordings." Even if you are a casual jazz fan, and never plan to own more than a handful of Billie Holiday CDs, these set deserves a place on your shelf. And if you are a devotee, you have no excuses. If you don't already own this set, you will want to have it.
Jazz.com is featuring Billie Holiday as part of a celebration of jazz singers during the month of February. No one knows Billie's life and music better than Stuart Nicholson, author of the biography Billie Holiday, and we are delighted to have him select twelve essential Lady Day tracks as part of our on-going feature The Dozens. Nicholson also contribute a biographical essay on the vocalist to jazz.com's Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians. Later this month we will be publishing Nicholson's similar take on Ella Fitzgerald.
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia