Picks and Pans Review: The Quintessential Billie Holi Day

UPDATED 06/01/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/01/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT

Billie Holiday

The Columbia "Jazz Masterpieces" series of reissues is cause for rejoicing in general, and nowhere more than in the case of these two memorable albums. The Ellington album, recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956, captures one of his most spectacular bands, which bridged the generations from the old—Harry Carney and Johnny Hodges (the peerless alto sax player who had just rejoined Ellington after years on his own)—to the new, such as trumpeter Clark Terry and drummer Sam Woodyard. The highlight is Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue, which featured a galvanizing 27-chorus solo by tenor player Paul Gonsalves. Sustaining his basic theme yet never repeating himself, Gonsalves builds what is more a composition than a solo, urged on by heated shouts of encouragement from the band, a growing swell of response from the crowd and the deft support of the band's rhythm section, Ellington, Woodyard and bassist James Woode. Even at this distance the performance remains vibrantly exciting. The Holiday album, the first in a planned series of her records, covers 1933-35. Two of her best early recordings, the Billie's Blues and Summertime she cut with a group featuring Bunny Berigan and Artie Shaw, were unaccountably left off this LP. (They were on the old Columbia Lady Day album.) A lot of the tunes are of the wretched sort Holiday was so often stuck with, such as You Let Me Down: "That's how I got so cynical/ You put me on a pinnacle/ Then you let me down." Yet even in that context, she was sly and sexy. Most of the tracks include the graceful, melodic piano of Teddy Wilson, always a musician of rare elegance but never more so than when he played behind Holiday. Other releases in the "Masterpieces" series include the work of Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Erroll Garner, Benny Goodman and Charles Mingus. (Columbia)

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