Billie Holiday: Banned From New York – Live 1948-1957 – Uptown Records (2 CDs) UPCD, TT: 114:49 ***:
(Billie Holiday – vocals, accompanied by her trios: Red Norvo All Stars; Skitch Henderson Orchestra; Billie Holiday Trio & Paul Quinichette)
“Insecurity, abuse, and deprivation defined her childhood “writes Patricia Willard in her essay on Billie Holiday for The Oxford Companion To Jazz, Edited By Bill Kirchner. Further on in the same story, Willard offers a telling quotation from Artie Shaw:”she had her own thumb-print,when she sang it was unmistakably her… (when) she sang something, it came alive, I mean, that’s what jazz is about”.
In the fulsome liner notes to this release, Kirk Silsbee provides a very concise backstory to Billie Holiday’s life and struggles. But the short version of the reason for being Banned In New York is quite simple. In May 1947, Billie was arrested on a narcotics charge in Philadelphia that resulted in a nine-month prison sentence. The fallout from this drug bust was the cancellation of her New York cabaret card. She could not perform anywhere in the city where alcohol was served. With her career a mess, she was forced to go on the road to make a living. These live recordings cover that period when New York City was off limits to Billie Holiday.
Although these sessions are on two CDs, it is more appropriate to discuss the tracks in total, rather than by CD. The recordings offer a glimpse, over an almost ten year period, of an artist in decline as the effects of alcohol and drug abuse take their toll on her voice and musicality. When this live recording odyssey began in 1948 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, Billie was in fine strong voice on the opening track “ Good Morning Heartache”. Despite a wonky piano and some uneven source recording, these tracks are delightful as Billie covers each song with articulation in her phrasing, and swings with panache on “You’re Driving Me Crazy”. She even ventures to tackle some unfamiliar material with “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone”. Pianist Bobby Tucker provides indefatigable support with his comping and harmonic note structure.
The Shrine performances continue with an interlude from The Red Norvo All Stars. These instrumentals are interesting because the arrangements were most likely the work of trumpeter Neal Hefti, and they reflected the bebop influence that was starting to be evident on the West Coast. Hence the title “Bop!” which demonstrates the bop chord changes. Norvo is centre stage with a vibe solo filled with his unmistakable phrasing. Another interesting number is a Hefti composition entitled “Sealed With A Kiss” on which the 22 year old pianist Jimmy Rowles shows he has the chops to play in stellar company.
Billie Holiday returns to the stage with her trio, but on several tunes, the Red Norvo All Stars support her work with some timely fills and exclamations. The most interesting selection in this grouping is a blues called “I Love My Man” which was written by Holiday. While she was not truly a blues-singer, she does capture the feeling and turn of phrase that works.
The two sessions from 1954 are revelatory, as they record Holiday at both a nadir and a zenith performance. In the Brussels Belgium tracks ( 3 to 10), Holiday is croaky, strained, and seems unsure in her articulation. However she rally somewhat on her own composition “Fine And Mellow” and picks up the pace with “What A Little Moonlight Can Do “. For The Hi Hat, Boston tracks (11-15), Holiday is back to her best-remembered self. The source recording is clear and free of crackles. Billie is in fine melodic voice,swinging behind the beat as was one her trademarks. She took “Them There Eyes” at a pace that she could not have imagined in the Brussels performances. She could do “Willow Weep For Me” in her sleep, but here she gives a sly take on the lyrics, that is diverting.
The final two tracks, “Good Morning Heartache” and “You Better Go Now” are from Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago in 1957, slightly two years before her death. The years since the Boston recording in 1954 had done their damage and Billie was showing her vocal age. However the inclusion of tenor saxophonist Paul Quinichette gives her some support that hides the all too prevalent flaws.
Billie Holiday’s life had more that its share of successes and excesses. These recordings help put these traits into perspective.
[The piano flutter and wow is really over the top, especially for those of us sensitive to such awful speed variations. Evidently the German Capstan software used by Pristine Audio, which corrects such speed variations, was unavailable to Uptown Records, and it’s a shame. Just be alerted if this bothers you. I frankly think this album shouldn’t have been released…Ed.]
CD1 – Good Morning Heartache; Lover Man; You’re Driving Me Crazy; Maybe You’ll Be There; I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone; Strange Fruit; Russian Lullaby; Bop!; Sealed With A Kiss; Medley; Laura; Adios; The Man I Love; My Man; Miss Brown To You; Them There Eyes; No More; I Love My Man
CD2 – Lover Man; Miss Brown To You; He’s Funny That Way; All Of Me; My Man; Them There Eyes; I Cried For You; Don’t Explain; Fine And Mellow; What A Little Moonlight Can Do; Blue Moon; All Of Me; Tenderly; Them There Eyes; Willow Weep For Me; Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone; Steve Allen Interview; I Don’t Stand A Ghost Of A Chance With You; Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone; I Love My Man; My Man; Sign Off; Good Morning Heartache; You Better Go Now