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Disc review: Jose James, ‘Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday

Jazz

Jose James

Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday

[Capitol]

3 stars

Jose James calls Billie Holiday his “musical mother.” He’s far from alone in jazz song in claiming her maternity. The number of jazz singers, justly or not, who might claim Holiday as their mother would, no doubt, be huge – greater than any other jazz singer who ever lived.

That her centennial is almost upon us (she was born April 7, 1915) is going to be just cause for major celebration all year, just as it will be for the centennial of the first singer to claim a kind of brotherhood with Holiday, Frank Sinatra.

You can circle the equator with singers claiming Holiday kinship if you want to but the fact was she was absolutely as inimitable as she was influential. She was unique.

Her voice, for one thing, was never pretty in any way, much less beautiful. It was sweet and girlish early on but always thin and reedy. At the end of her life, the cracks and squawks literally made her voice ugly at times, but the best way to describe it would be with the title of a Thelonious Monk tune – it was “Ugly Beauty.”

So much art, musicianship and expressivity went into her music – especially toward the end of her life – that it quite literally redefined jazz song. Probably only Carmen McRae deserved to claim kinship.

You have to say this for James and his artful tribute record: despite being sensitive and “pretty” all the way through, his approach is not completely foreign to Holiday’s music as so many jazz singers can be, despite their protestations. His version of “Strange Fruit,” for instance, makes it a kind of jazz folk song that isn’t nearly as absurd as some “tribute” versions have been – Annie Lennox’s, for instance.

Only pianist Jason Moran here understands the tolerance for roughness implicit in a Holiday tribute. There is a actually a tiny bit of finger fumbling in his solo to “Good Morning, Heartache.”

James’ accompanying trio here is terrific – Moran, bassist John Pattitucci and drummer Eric Harland. The disc is like a lyric poem in tribute to a great drama or a great epic. The disc, then, is poetic rather than dramatic and tragic.

Not bad, though. Not bad at all.

– Jeff Simon

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