Album of the week: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia

Our Lindy 3 and 4 teachers Peter and Julia present us every Monday with an Album of the Week, always including some amazing historical context and fun trivia. This made us really enthusiastic about learning more about the culture and the music. So we thought we’d share the love by putting all of them on our website. This week Federico and Esther took over for Lindy 3 and 4 because Peter and Julia were off to a festival.

This is the Album of the week for the 4th of March. Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday On Columbia 1933 – 1944

Listen to the album on Spotify
Listen to the album on Youtube

Federico:
I am going with the Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson combo, which I find one of the greatest’s of the classic swing era.

They had multiple recording sessions starting in the mid 30’s and over the span of at least a decade. So I am linking her entire catalogue on Columbia which mostly overlap with this period (and which also contains other collaborations besides theirs.). Ted Wilson band also featured some of the greatest swing musicians of the period like Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster, Buck Clayton and Charlie Shavers (although they are mostly uncredited, at least in the Spotify version. In fact sometimes even Wilson is not credited as in ‘Did I remember’ and ‘No Regrets’). The material is filling at least 10CD’s (‘Among those vocals, Billie Holiday and Teddy Wilson made fourteen sides together in 1935 alone’ Wikipedia). When they started recording together, Teddy Wilson had just established himself after playing with Benny Goodman (and being the first black in a de-segregated ensemble) and she essentially had her breakthrough as the most influential jazz singer. The catalogue is what I find an endless sequence of classics.

Teddy Wilson fame is on a down-swing at the moment and he has been mostly forgotten in the current swing scene in favor of other contemporaries, but he has been long considered the quintessential swing pianist. Although he cites Art Tatum and Earl Hines as his greatest pianistic influences and a lot of his technique can be traced to them, he doesn’t have the percussive approach of the former (which generated a much more obvious descend in the likes of Bud Powell, Erroll Garner and Thelonius Monk) and tends to arrange his playing around simpler rhythmical ideas and a thinner texture than the latter. Similarly his approach as a band leader of small ensembles tends to focus on tighter, lighter arrangements, very far from the often over-orchestrated executions of other giants of the mature swing era like Basie or Ellington.

Billie Holiday is the greatest jazz voice who ever walked the Earth, and this small detail has been often overshadowed by her troubled life (although this has been at times overplayed for publicity effects) and more justifiably by her commitment to the Afro-American cause in the States (she kept singing ‘Strange Fruits’ to white crowds who wished she could just stick to romantic tunes like ‘All of Me’). In her later career she has been associated with melancholic, saccharine tunes about loneliness and failed romances, but her pre-war recordings have a completely different, ferocious and riotous vibe which is perfectly balanced by the unperturbed, restrained swing of Teddy Wilson. To me, the most distinctive aspect of her singing is her unparalleled ability to move around the beat, constantly expanding and contracting it. If you ever found yourself in trouble dancing to one of her songs remember to focus on the rhythm section and not on her and also be comforted that you are not alone: one anecdote goes that she would intentionally over-do her rhythmical games in order to pick on unexperienced musicians in her band and throw them off.

Thank you very much for sharing this with us Federico! Julia and Peter will be back next week!

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