Two Takes On Billie Holiday

Apr 30, 2015

In honor of Billie Holiday's 100th birthday this month, several artists are releasing out Holiday tribute albums. Fresh Air jazz critic Kevin Whitehead looks at a couple of these by other singers. One he rather likes; the other, not so much.

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This is FRESH AIR. In honor of Billie Holiday's centennial, which was April 7, several artists have released Holiday tribute albums. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead looks at a couple of these by other singers. One he rather likes, the other not so much.


JOSE JAMES: (Singing) Morning heartache, here we go again. Morning heartache, you're the one who knew me when. Might as well get used to you hanging around, morning heartache.

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Jose James on one of Billie Holiday's signature songs from his tribute album, "Yesterday I Had The Blues." James takes a bunch of songs associated with Holiday and does a good job of infusing them with her spirit. The way he tinkers with a song's phrasing to invest the lyric with meaning is right out of Holiday's playbook.


JAMES: (Singing) Someday we'll meet, and you'll dry all my tears and whisper sweet little things in my ears again. And the kissing, Lord, what I've been missing. Lover, where can you be?

WHITEHEAD: Jose James's previous albums have been rhythm and blues-ish, but he'd grown up hearing Billie Holiday since he was a toddler. She's as deep an influence as an artist can have, and he honors her gift for understatement. About the only time he sounds at a loss is dealing with those archaic oh, oh, oh's on "What A Little Moonlight Can Do."


JAMES: (Singing) Oh, what a little moonlight can do. Oh, what a little moonlight can do to you. You're in love. Your hearts fluttered all day long. You only stutter 'cause your poor tongue will not utter the words, I love you. What a little moonlight can do.

WHITEHEAD: Jose James backed by a crack (ph) trio who get their own space but don't try to steal the show - pianist Jason Moran, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Eric Harland. Sometimes I wish for a horn player to mix it up with the singer once or twice, but better too little than too much. The ringer track is James's overdubbed a cappella "Strange Fruit," that harrowing tale of a lynching that Holiday made famous and made her own. James's take sounds like a chain gang from that musically tidy alternate universe in the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"


JAMES: (Singing) Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

WHITEHEAD: If any song should be stamped property of Billie Holiday and retired, this is it. There have been other dubious versions lately. I'm looking at you, Annie Lennox and violins. Cassandra Wilson does "Strange Fruit" on her new Holiday tribute album, "Coming Forth By Day." Wilson's version piles up strings, electronic loops and a bunch of guitars headed for this top-heavy climax.


CASSANDRA WILSON: (Singing) Here is a strange and bitter crop.

WHITEHEAD: When it came time to mix that, did no one think to say maybe it's a little too much? That ending is about the only time on "Coming Forth By Day" that Cassandra Wilson raises her voice. Mostly she's in low-key whisper mode, competing with lavish, spare-no-expense arrangements. The string charts are by pop mastermind Van Dyke Parks, apparently having an off week.


WILSON: (Singing) Lovely, lovely never ever change. Keep that breathless charm. Won't you please arrange it? For I love you just the way you look tonight.

WHITEHEAD: Like Billie Holiday, Cassandra Wilson sounded buoyant on her early records and got more subdued later, and that's OK. She's already been recording longer than Holiday, and lots of artists change things up to stay fresh. Some Billie Holiday records use strings to target pop listeners, and that's OK too. But Holiday never let the orchestrations upstage her. Cassandra Wilson is a great singer. Why hide her behind bells and whistles?


WILSON: (Singing) Might as well get used to you hanging around. Good morning, heartache, sit down.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed Billie Holiday tribute albums by Jose James and Cassandra Wilson. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, including this week's interview with Louis CK, check out our podcast, which you can get on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.