Various Artists – A Tribute to Billie Holiday (CD review)

Various Artists – A Tribute to Billie Holiday (Redeye) CD review

One of the most unique artists of the last 100 years, Billie Holiday changed the way we sing.  Before she came along, vocalists were simply viewed as “singers” – second class band members who were wheeled out to entertain the most low brow of audiences.  Holiday showed that a voice was indeed an instrument unto itself – able to bend notes, and ride behind or in front of the rhythm, helping swing a band just like a trumpet might.  Since she was never really a songwriter, Holiday’s true gift was in how she transformed the most mundane of melodies into jazz standards.  A Tribute to Billie Holiday isn’t the first to honor Lady Day, but it does do a nice job of showing her influence on modern music.

Instead of just a collection of songs, Tribute is meant as a listening experience, beginning with the spoken-word “Introduction” done by actress Angela Bassett – reading from Holiday’s autobiography, “Lady Sings the Blues.”  She doesn’t really sound like Holiday, but she nails her attitude.  Her tales of her unbelievably heinous childhood help set the mood for these recordings.  Bassett continues to read passages at the tail end of many of the songs – continuing to tell her tale as the songs cycle through.    Although the set brings in a wide array of artists, from up and comers to seasoned veterans, it never strays too far from jazz infused R&B and smooth jazz.

Deborah Cox, who recently did an entire album of another influential singer, Dinah Washington, effectively bends the notes in typical Billie fashion on “Fine and Mellow,” while new comer Erin Boheme captures some of the early, soaring Lady Day on “Them There Eyes.”  But, it’s really the veteran voices that shine on this collection: Freda Payne, who had a hit almost 40 years ago with “Band of Gold,” injects some sass into her reading of “Billie’s Blues,” while Boz Scaggs shows that, like Holiday, he can do a great deal with a limited vocal range – his raspy interpretation of “Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me” is another standout.  The single, greatest performance here comes surprisingly from Shelby Lynne; her vocal is somehow seductive and aching at the same time.  Like Holiday, she comes from a troubled past and certainly knows how to interject pain into her work.  She’s one of the few artists here who don’t seem to be showing off.  Yet, just by being herself, she perhaps encapsulates the essence of Billie better than anyone else.

There are also a couple of misses – Brownstone’s take on “God Bless the Child” is pure fluff and fails to get to the song’s true meaning.  But, even that sounds stunning compared to the misguided attempt by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds to tackle Holiday’s most controversial song “Strange Fruit.”  Dealing with racial lynchings that were still happening in the South, Holiday actually feared for her life on more than one occasion of singing this song.  But, put in the hands of an R&B crooner is pure heresy.  Babyface’s clear voice is completely unsuitable for such a powerful song.  It’s certainly a bold move on his part – there are more than a few singers that wouldn’t dare take a crack at it, but it doesn’t hide the fact that he fails miserably.

Although not a perfect album, A Tribute to Billie Holiday still features some fine performances, and with the great narration, makes an enjoyable listening experience.  –Tony Peters