Until very recently, my most-played tribute to Billie Holiday was DeeDee Bridgewater’s 2010 release Eleanora Fagan (DDB Records). Apart from the superb musicianship of Bridgewater, pianist/arranger Eddie Gomez, bassist Christian McBride, perfectly in-period guest reedman James Carter, and drummer Lewis Nash, the album took a significant step away from what had become the norm in tributes: slow-paced, masochistic, pathos-filled interpretations of someone almost inevitably pigeonholed as a “tragic diva”.
In this, the centenary year of Holiday’s birth, and the anniversary month of her death, few fans need reminding of the genuine tragedies of the singer’s life. Eleanora was a child handed like a parcel from unwilling relative to relative after her father flew the coop; sexually abused from her early teens; excluded by racism and exploited by industry bosses, by various gold-digging male lovers and by the dealers she grew to depend on – with those categories of abusers and exploiters by no means mutually exclusive. Bridgewater (who spent close to two years being Billie on stage) does not erase that, but her treatments of the songs also foreground Holiday’s wry self-awareness, her wit and courage, and the defiant joy she took in her own artistry. Holiday was a brilliant musician: her timing, phrasing and emphases made every song – even the most trivial Tin Pan Alley trash – her own, and something greater than mere notes on the sheet. Without prettifying the truth, Bridgewater’s album reminds us of all that too.
Some might think Panamanian-American singer Jose James, whose reputation has been built as much on hip-hop and rn’b stylings as on narrowly-defined “jazz”, shows more than a little chutzpah in deciding to cover Holiday’s songs, particularly her self-composed blues, Fine and Mellow. As Angela Davis pointed out in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Holiday’s musical greatness is sometimes pushed into the wings by the persistent journalistic meme of the gendered (female) victim; her music has, for some, become similarly locked in gendered victimhood – and especially that song. Whether in Holiday’s version or a cover, it’s what bereft and helpless women are supposed to play on repeat when their man done left them.
But James’s tribute, Yesterday I had the Blues (Blue Note), turns all such nonsense on its head. Fine and Mellow works perfectly fine as a man’s song in James’s mellow, smoky baritone. He has pointed out in interviews that Holiday’s work expresses righteous indignation and ridicule far more often than helplessness (“She should be a feminist icon”) and that’s the direction in which he takes the song. James is a very good singer, here eschewing pop quirks for classic interpretations that make the most of what he shares with Holiday: beautiful diction and a powerful gift for expressive phrasing. Meanwhile Jason Moran on piano and Fender Rhodes applies some very contemporary jazz ideas to tunes written in the 1930s, 40s and 50s: Body and Soul might have been written for the ECM stable, while the voice/piano teamwork on I Thought About You (recorded by Holiday in 1956 on The Lady Sings the Blues but far too infrequently covered) rescues the lyric effectively from Diana Krall’s relentlessly sunshiny version with Ray Brown.
The acid test for a Holiday tribute is usually Strange Fruit. And despite the empathetic support of Moran, bassist John Pattitucci and drummer Eric Harland, James dispenses with them all on that track. He employs only the acappella voices and hand-claps of the radical African-American churches to produce a compelling interpretation that sounds, paradoxically, both far older than the song’s 1937 birth-date and far more a song for all times.
James’s was set to be my current favourite version of Strange Fruit, and it remains on fairly regular repeat – but then along came Cassandra Wilson with her Holiday tribute, Coming Forth By Day (Columbia). Wilson’s voice has a very different timbre from Holiday’s; more importantly, her intellect takes a very different view of how best to acknowledge the singer’s legacy. Asserting that it’s “beyond improper – it’s considered rude in jazz” to imitate another singer, Wilson reinterprets the material radically, aided and abetted by Nick Cave’s producer Nick Launay and the rhythm section from the Bad Seeds. If Bridgewater reminded us about smart, sassy Billie, and James told us “Goddamit, just listen to those hip songs”, then Wilson gives us rock n’roll Billie – but in a very, very good way.
Billie’s Blues evokes the roots of the 12-bar blues, but simultaneously imbues it with a mood reminiscent of Velvet Underground. Don’t Explain is read not as the acceptance of excuses but an order to a cheating lover to cut the crap: “It takes more of a womanist reading,” Wilson told NPR, “…more of a sense of ‘You may be doing something, but it needs to stop right now!’”
Some tracks take a subversive trip through the sonic history of the period Holiday worked in. Both You Go to My Head and The Way You Look Tonight embrace the “with strings” infatuation of record stables from EMI to Motown in the 1960s – and force you to hear the darkness under the saccharine. Others, strip show tunes back to their blues, gospel and African roots. Wilson’s Strange Fruit is intricately tapestried with multiple instrumental voices to almost cinematic effect
But while it packs a powerful contemporary punch (in this modern reading with its spine-chilling strings and guitar dissonances, the links to today’s nightmare of police killings are un-missable), Strange Fruit is not the most emotionally devastating track. That accolade belongs to Good Morning Heartache. Holiday was, and Wilson is, a master of the intimate narrative: of sitting down on a stage and making every audience member feel as though the story is being told just for them. This time, the singer is telling the story to the face she sees in the mirror. It’s not pathetic, but strong and ruthlessly honest, and if it doesn’t send shivers down your spine, you have no soul.
All three tributes offer insight into Holiday’s music, but none of them sums it up. That, the woman herself did best. Watch her singing Fine and Mellow in 1957 with the Gerry Mulligan band on Sound of Jazz (www.youtube.com/watch?v=htkVJ9yLGQ8 ). It wasn’t the best time of her life, only two years before she died, and the stresses show on her face. But something more important shines there: the fierce intellectualism of a master musician. Watch her listening, checking solos, thinking about how she’ll take her next lines. And recognize that that, really, was who she was.
Pick of the upcoming events next week has to be the launch of poet Lesego Rampholokeng’s new book, A Half-Century Thing (Black Ghost Books) at 2pm on August 1 at 8365 Orlando West Phepheni; details from email@example.com. There has always been a strong (and sometimes a harsh) musicality in the poet’s words, and for this book the advance publicity invokes Johnny Dyani, Miles Davis, Mankunku and more.
August 1 is also a pretty good jazz day elsewhere. The Paul Hanmer/Wendy Oldfield Songlines tour hits KZN, with a performance at 8pm at the Bush Tavern in Umdloti (031-568-1266). At Straight No Chaser on Buitenkant Street in Cape Town, Straight No Chaser presents improvising ensemble Benguela with Bryden Bolton; bookings by call, SMS or WhatsApp to 076-679-2697. At The Orbit on de Korte St in Johannesburg’s Braamfontein, composer, trumpeter and flugelhorn player Feya Faku presents original music old and new; bookings 011-339-6645.