Coming Forth By Day
Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday
The Centennial Collection
Tuesday would have marked the 100th birthday of Billie Holiday, the jazz legend whose singing has all but defined the genre. She died at age 44, but she shared a voice with the world that celebrated romance and the blues with rapturous depth — a depth that only suggested the very real life blues of her own existence.
Three new albums surfaced this week to honor the centennial as well as Holiday's remarkable legacy. Two are wildly different reimaginings of her music, and the third is a fine refresher record from Lady Day herself.
Coming Forth by Day is an astounding and deeply atmospheric tribute from Cassandra Wilson, who has spent the past 25 years of her career discovering earthy, ambient links between jazz and blues. Not surprisingly, the deep, whispery huskiness of her singing in no way approximates Holiday, nor do the echoing colors of guitar and percussion that figure so highly in the soundscapes created by producer Nick Launay, whose previous efforts include Nick Cave, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Arcade Fire. Crazy He Calls Me becomes an enchanting guitar hangover until the lustrous glow of Wilson's singing and Van Dyke Parks dreamlike strings breakthrough to emphasize the song's almost reluctant optimism ("the impossible will take a little while").
New-generation singer José James plays matters relatively straight by slimming down nine Holiday gems to quartet settings with a troupe of jazz all-stars (pianist Jason Moran, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Eric Harland). That allows Good Morning Heartache to stand as a refreshed meditation and God Bless the Child to move with a tastefully urbanized groove under James' robust baritone.
The Centennial Collection lets Lady Day speak. It's a new 20-song anthology from Columbia/Legacy than runs from recordings made with Teddy Wilson and his Orchestra in 1935 to music cut under Holiday's name as a leader in 1944. Although hardly a definitive representation for longstanding fans, the set is a fine primer for newcomers.
The song that leaves the greatest mark here and presents the most width for interpretation is Strange Fruit. One of only two tunes featured on all three recordings (What a Little Moonlight Can Do is the other), it's a sobering account of a Southern lynching.
Wilson sings it with hushed gravity under gusts of guitar ambience and strings. James transforms it into a gospel-esque prayer with only multi-tracked vocals and handclaps. Lady Day's 1939 version, unsurprisingly, cut to the chase. She sings the lament as naturally as any other song that poured from her lips — with bucketloads of soul and a shattered heart.
Walter Tunis | Contributing Music Critic