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Arts & Entertainment Preview | October 2001 | Sponsored by Chrysler


Classical Music

by Bob Blumenthal and Charles M. Young
 


The Early Holiday


Billie Holiday

In a contemporary marketplace where aspiring jazz singers are notable primarily for an audible lack of maturity, the poise, daring, and raw emotion of the young Billie Holiday are more startling than ever. Holiday was barely twenty years old in 1935 when she began recording a series of sessions under the leadership of the pianist Teddy Wilson which redefined the possibilities of vocal jazz and turned numerous sow's ears of swing-era song pluggers into musical silk. Holiday's gifts included a plasticity of phrasing on a par with the era's most talented instrumentalists, and an interpretive complexity that infused even the most banal lyrics with layers of meaning. She practiced her art in the company of virtually every star of the big-band era, operating (until fame and dramatic material such as "Strange Fruit" made her the undeniable center of attention) as one among many gifted soloists. Holiday's early recordings, available in numerous forms in the past, have never been as comprehensively presented as on Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia, 1933-1944 (Columbia/Legacy). The 230 tracks in this 10-disc set contain definitive readings of standards and obscurities alike, as Holiday and a revolving cast of associates (including Wilson, Benny Goodman, Bunny Berigan, and her musical soulmate, the tenor saxophonist Lester Young) raise the likes of "My First Impression of You," and "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" to the same Olympian heights as their readings of "Summertime" and "These Foolish Things." Alternate takes and air checks are programmed at the end of the package and include rare glimpses of Holiday supported by the bands of Goodman, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. —B.B.



Sensitive Standards

Among many jazz fans, commercial success is the ultimate sin, which makes Diana Krall jazz's primary sinner of the moment. A singer/pianist who first attracted attention five years ago with her homage to the Nat King Cole trio, All for You (Impulse!), then catapulted to the pop charts and an album of the year Grammy nomination for her first effort with orchestral backing, When I Look in Your Eyes (Verve), Krall has parlayed a smoky timbre, a relaxed sense of time, and excellent taste in material into a package of surprisingly widespread appeal. Her new collection,
The Look of Love (Verve), aspires to the whispered seductiveness of João Gilberto, with arranger Claus Ogerman even recycling a couple of orchestrations that he fashioned for the bossa nova pioneer a quarter century ago. While no one can match Gilberto for intimate spell-weaving, Krall holds her own, primarily because her sensitivity as both singer and player are made for such standards as "I Remember You," "The Night We Called It a Day," and "Cry Me a River." Rather than employing a hard sell, she eases into these ballads and allows their strengths to guide the performances. It also helps that, on four tracks, Krall has reunited with the guitarist Russell Malone, who spent years as a linchpin in Krall's touring trio before setting off to front his own band. —B.B.



Psychedelic Heaven

Miranda Lee Richards, an alumna of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, has a winning cross-generational appeal on her solo debut,
The Herethereafter (Virgin). Baby boomers who haven't given up on the sixties will be thrilled with her gentle but authoritative command of melodic psychedelia. (If you thought the Beatles had it right with "Strawberry Fields" and the Stones had it right with "Dandelion," wonderfully updated here, you'll want to smoke a bongful of dried banana peels and stare at the sun.) Non-baby boomers will simply groove on the arrangements and marvel at her songwriting. She never lets the weirdness get in the way of the melodies, which is a miracle of taste in this Digital Age of Unlimited Noises. Lyrically, Richards manages to be personal without descending into the narcissism and excruciating relationship analysis that has flawed the work of many of her peers. Again, it's the sixties influence, the hippie vibe of freedom over societal constrictions. She's also been influenced by that master of nineteenth-century French psychedelia, Charles Baudelaire, whose poem "The Landscape" she adapts for a song. Baudelaire and Richards both are concerned with the transitory nature of beauty and life ("Seasons will pass 'til Autumn fades the rose"), and both believe in compensating with "the sinless Idyll of innocent words." Not a bad description of the Herethereafter. —C.M.Y.


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Bob Blumenthal is a jazz critic for The Boston Globe.
Charles M. Young reviews music for Playboy and other publications and for Allmusic.com.

Photograph of Billie Holiday: Michael Ochs Archives.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.