Reviewed by Raoul Hernandez, Fri., Dec. 9, 2005
The Complete Verve Studio Master Takes (Verve)
Reflexive dismissal of Billie Holiday's final recordings is well and truly tested by The Complete Verve Studio Master Takes. Legacy's 10-CD The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933-1944) remains a singular human accomplishment, but as with another endnote, 2003's Charlie Parker: The Complete Verve Master Takes, the opposite end of the spectrum is also essential to Lady Day addicts. Metal-bound like Parker, this 6-CD compilation unfolds accordion style, stringing together Holiday's final LPs, 1952 through 1959, the year of the singer's death. Master Takes means no alternate takes, which makes for a better listen, Holiday cutting the cream of the great songbooks in stereo for the jukebox generation. Ellington, Gershwin, Rodgers & Hart, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, etc., are covered by sextets alternately led by trumpets Charlie Shavers and Harry "Sweets" Edison, ivory traders Oscar Peterson and Jimmy Rowles, and featuring giants Ray Brown, Benny Carter, and Ben Webster. Productionwise, the bands are muted (by hiss early in the run), Holiday's voice not just in the foreground, but in 3-D. She's right here. As such, there's a timelessness to these sides. They were recorded in a vacuum; there's nothing except that otherworldly voice. Early 78s like a particularly poignant "Autumn in New York" give way to 1955's balmy Stay With Me and middle-of-the-roadsters Music for Touching and Velvet Mood. Disc four pairs '56's popular Lady Sings the Blues and flickering All or Nothing, the former's title track one of the few songs Holiday wrote, with jazz scientist Herbie Nichols, followed by her immortal reading of "Strange Fruit." The last disc adds strings to dull the druggy blur Holiday's voice had become. Jimmy Cleveland's trombone and girlish "There'll Be Some Changes Made" shine, but otherwise, a sad finale. Even then, you hate to hear it end.