Holiday blues

Music - Richard Cook laments the premature decline of a legend shadowed by sadness

So many distracting bits of legend have attached themselves to Billie Holiday's name that it is hard to hear her clearly. To contemporary listeners, the narcotic qualities of her singing are no more attractive, apparently, than the haze of pain and mystique of put-upon genius under which her surviving records labour. Most know Holiday only as the sad old woman of the albums that she made in the era of the LP. When she died, at 44, her voice had declined to a croak that would have shocked anyone familiar with her first sessions. The insufferable Lady in Satin (Columbia), where she is attended by the weeping strings of a full orchestra rather than the small-group jazz that she seemed to prefer, is a ghoulish farewell. Billie's mannerisms - staying behind the beat, holding on to unexpected parts of the line and turning a sexy drawl into a winsome ambivalence - have been matters on which singers have studied ever since her emergence in the Thirties. Everyone from Sinatra to Streisand has acknowledged their debt to her. Pop vocalists who crave credibility drop her name as an influence. Tribute albums still make their way on to the racks in record shops.

Yet Holiday makes an uncomfortable model. For all her toughness as a performer, she projects doom. Signature pieces such as "Don't Explain" and "Good Morning Heartache" are cloudy with a melancholy that she cannot bring herself to understand - the artist as willing submissive. Good-natured performances such as her Verve recording of "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" often become an awkward truce between offhand gaiety and a feeling that bad times are just around the corner. Norman Granz, who produced most of her later records, seemed to want to rekindle the atmosphere of her early discs, but instead found only a ghost: the music was slower, more stretched, and often hopelessly fatigued. When she made a recording of her set-piece blues "Fine and Mellow" for the celebrated Sound of Jazz television broadcast of 1957, appearing alongside her equally wayward old partner, Lester Young, Holiday seemed as if she were somewhere else altogether, rocking her head and smiling absently as if listening to something on a different stage, or in a different head.

This feeble decline has been well enough chronicled in a string of biographies, with husbands and lovers and other bad habits ruining both her voice and her temperament. But there was another Holiday, whose surviving recordings are far less well known, except to the core jazz audience. The tireless talent scout John Hammond originally recommended her to Benny Goodman, with whom she made one record (the delightful "Your Mother's Son-in-Law" and "Riffin' the Scotch"), but it was as a member of a cadre of New York players that she made her mark as a recording artiste. Most of the sessions were under the discreet leadership of the pianist Teddy Wilson, that most urbane of players; and with pals such as Young, Roy Eldridge, Buck Clayton and Ben Webster often in attendance, the music epitomised the gracious bounce and invention that was a hallmark of original small-group swing.

These sessions have not been well served in the CD era: Columbia, which owns the original masters, had not troubled to remaster them fully since a muzzy-sounding LP edition of the late Eighties. Now it has done them magnificent justice in a ten-disc box set, Lady Day: the complete Billie Holiday on Columbia, 1933-1944. Monuments like this have a habit of staying on the shelf, but this is one big set to which one wants to return for the sheer joy of hearing the music. The teenage Holiday's voice works a seemingly miraculous blend of youth and wisdom: there is nothing in these interpretations that she would surpass. Instead of the creaky tragedian of her later years, here is the funny, even flirtatious Billie, playing with her peers and loving what she can do with that fresh, immutable voice. Many of these songs have been all but forgotten since their heyday in the Thirties, but Holiday does something to them that is more than period charm or guile. Later, she seemed to be living out her lyrics, although no singer really does that. Here, she simply inhabits the song for a few minutes, and teases what merriment and affection and warmth she can out of it. In the irresistible lyric for "One, Two, Button My Shoe", which is about waiting for your date to arrive, it is breathtaking just how much fun she gets out of the tune even as she displays a canny virtuosity, toying with the time and taking her place in the perspective of a small gem of record-making. The sessions with Wilson consistently secure both high craft and a kind of joshing camaraderie between the musicians, and it is telling how Holiday was absolutely one of them: on her first records, she was credited only as the provider of the vocal chorus.

There are other things in the set that dispel the gloom of the mature Holiday. A number of tracks feature broadcast and air-shot recordings, including a marvellous treatment with Count Basie of "Swing, Brother, Swing" - a jive number that would have been meat and drink to Ella Fitzgerald, but which wasn't supposed to be the sort of thing that Holiday could do well. Yet even by 1940, the darkness has begun to intrude: the singing has lost some of its insouciance, the backing has started to grow formal, and by the time of her first version of "God Bless the Child" (1941), the young Billie seems already to have all but vanished - although she was still only 26. If we are to honour her memory, we should go back to the very beginning.

Lady Day: the complete Billie Holiday is out now on Columbia, and there is also an excellent two-disc selection from the complete set, Lady Day: the best of Billie Holiday