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Reviewers: Don Mather, Dick Stafford, John Eyles, Robert Gibson, Ian Lace, Colin Clarke, Jack Ashby



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Crotchet
Billie Holiday vol. 4.
You’re My Thrill: Original Recordings 1944-1949.
Naxos Jazz Legends, 8.120750

 

 

 

1. What Is This Thing Called Love
2. Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)
3. You Better Go Now
4. Don’t Explain
5. Good Morning Heartache
6. Big Stuff
7. The Blues Are Brewin’
8. Deep Song
9. There is No Greater Love
10. Solitude
11. Keeps On A Rainin’
12. Do Your Duty
13. Gimme a Pigfoot And A Bottle Of Beer
14. I Loves You Porgy
15. My Man
16. You Can’t Lose a Broken Heart
17. My Sweet Hunk O’ Trash
18. You’re My Thrill
19. Crazy He Calls Me
20. ‘Taint Nobody’s Business If I Do

Tracks 1, 3, 4, 8, 9 and 10: accompanied by Bob Haggart’s Orchestra
Track 2: accompanied by Camarata’s Orchestra
Track 5: accompanied by Bill Stegmeyer’s Orchestra
Tracks 6, 14 and 15: ‘With Instrumental Accompaniment’
Track 7: accompanied by John Simmons’ Orchestra
Tracks 11, 12 and 13: accompanied by Sy Oliver’s Orchestra
Tracks 16 and 17: accompanied by Sy Oliver’s Orchestra and Louis Armstrong (vocals)
Tracks 18 and 19: accompanied by Gordon Jenkins’ Orchestra
Track 20: accompanied by Buster Harding’s Orchestra


As Scott Yanow notes in this collection’s accompanying liner notes, Billie Holiday’s recording career can be divided in to three distinct parts. In 1933 - 42, she recorded with various swing groups, which featured such renowned contemporaries as Lester Young and Teddy Wilson. In the 1950s, she worked alongside the finest veteran jazz musicians, recording numerous superior standards. It is her middle - and arguably her finest - period that is captured on You’re My Thrill.

The collection kicks off with the Cole Porter standard, ‘What is This Thing Called Love’, providing the perfect introduction to the unusual phrasing and extraordinary warmth that characterises Holiday’s famous voice. This is followed by ‘Lover Man’, Holiday’s first recording for Decca, and her biggest commercial success of all. It is easy to see why such a song should remain in her repertoire from then on. With its melancholy blues tone and pensive melody, it is perfectly suited to Holiday’s voice. But it is Camarata’s orchestra that seals the mood of the piece, the bass thumping wearily as it carries the tune forward, the stings curling subtly around the plaintive vocals.

Indeed, this collection is largely appealing as a portrait of Holiday’s diverse work with various kinds of musical accompaniment. Although a great deal of her Decca recordings have her joined by orchestras and powerful big bands (note her impressive work with Sy Oliver), several of the most alluring tracks here are conducted on an altogether smaller canvas. ‘Big Stuff’, for example, had previously been recorded with large orchestral accompaniment - but with less than satisfactory results. Here, with only a quintet for support, the song is an utter delight to listen to; with its surprising and satisfying melodic structure, anything more than minimal accompaniment would trample on Holiday’s quiet magic.

Whether or not she was greatest singer the jazz world has ever seen remains a hotly contested issue; but few would question that Holiday’s voice was one of the most expressive - and amongst the tracks of You’re My Thrill, we find some great examples of this. Beautifully supported by her rhythm section, Holiday’s version of ‘I Loves You Porgy’ is a finely-crafted masterpiece, both technically brilliant and emotionally resonant. ‘Solitude’, likewise, is poignant and moving, delivered with a level of emotional authenticity that only Holiday was able to capture. The depth of feeling in Holiday’s voice, though, is nowhere more evident than in ‘Don’t Explain’. With its tragic lyrics - clearly rooted in Holiday’s own experience - and the haunting quality of the strings accompaniment, this is a song that places her firmly in a different league from her contemporaries.

Despite the depressing subject matter of many of Holiday’s songs, however, she never allows her music to descend in to dreariness, hopelessness or self-indulgence; good-humoured irony and quirky optimism break through even the darkest narratives featured on You’re My Thrill. Hence, ‘Good Morning Heartache’ escapes being merely an account of misery, and delights us with its clever personification of those ‘Monday blues’. On ‘My Man’, likewise, Holiday’s tendency towards ironic playfulness is even more prominent. The minor-to-major key change that occurs in the middle of that song almost seems symbolic of her entire approach to emotion in music - better to draw out an element of hope in a portrait of fallible human nature, than simply to offer a catalogue of grievances.

Absolute proof of Holiday’s humour arrives near the end of collection when we hear her teamed up with one of her idols, the gravel-voiced Louis Armstrong. ‘My Sweet Hunk O’ Trash’, in particular, demonstrates the warmth and musical connection between the two jazz legends; as Armstrong struggles to defend himself against numerous damning accusations - everything from infidelity to laziness - its difficult not to be attracted to his character. The song, then, ultimately achieves its aim - despite his flaws, there’s a sweetness there that’s simply impossible to ignore.

Looking back on Holiday’s life, it seems no accident that domestic disputes, emotional turmoil and breakdown feature so prominently within her music. Indeed, her turbulent personal life sometimes overshadowed her achievements in jazz. Thankfully, though, through You’re My Thrill and similar collections of her material, her unique gift to the musical world will never be forgotten. As a portrait of Holiday’s work within this very distinctive era, it is hard to fault this collection at all: the sound quality is excellent: the variety is immense: and, most importantly, the music is timeless.

Robert Gibson



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