The Season of Box Sets: Jazz Vocalists | Bleader

The Season of Box Sets: Jazz Vocalists


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Billie Holiday: The Complete Commodore & Decca Masters
  • Billie Holiday: The Complete Commodore & Decca Masters
Now that we’re in the vortex of the holiday shopping season, record labels have all released their box sets for the year—the big-ticket items perfect for gift giving. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be running down some of the best that have crossed my desk in recent months. First order of business: vintage vocal jazz by Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald from Verve.

As its title suggests, the three-CD set Billie Holiday: The Complete Commodore & Decca Masters collects all the master takes Holiday cut for the Commodore and Decca labels. She had much longer stints at Columbia and Verve, during which she produced more of her important work, though she recorded for Commodore and Columbia concurrently after Columbia nixed her plans to record her haunting and disturbing classic “Strange Fruit.” In the big picture this material isn’t usually considered top-shelf, but hell, it’s Billie Holiday. The CDs are packaged in a hardbound book with a nice essay by Ashley Kahn, but even though it’s nice to have all this music in once place, it’s hard to justify buying a set with list price of $54.98 when you can piece together all the same tracks elsewhere for less.

Ella Fitzgerald: Twelve Nights in Hollywood
  • Ella Fitzgerald: Twelve Nights in Hollywood
Holiday is one of those jazz singers who appeal to folks who usually don’t care for jazz singers—myself included. Despite my bias, though, I was knocked out by the Ella Fitzgerald set Twelve Nights in Hollywood, four discs of previously unreleased performances culled mostly from a 1961 stand at an intimate club called the Crescendo with her nimble working band (guitarist Herb Ellis, pianist Lou Levy, bassist Wilfred Middlebrooks, and drummer Gus Johnson). Producer Norman Granz recorded every set she played between May 11 and May 21, ending up with almost 14 hours of music—Fitzgerald took only one of those nights off. He released 12 tracks on a 1961 album called Ella in Hollywood, but rather than using the appreciative reaction from the audience at the Crescendo—which seated 200—he spliced in the sounds of a crowd from a large auditorium. The record was a flop.

Those 14 hours, most of then unheard, then sat in a vault for nearly three decades until producer Phil Schaap discovered them in 1988. Though another Fitzgerald discovery from that time resulted in the album Ella in Rome, which topped the Billboard jazz charts in 1990, the music cut in Hollywood had to wait two more decades. Early this year another producer, Richard Seidel, heard it all and pared it down to 76 tracks (the fourth disc was recorded at the Crescendo in 1962). Fitzgerald was at her peak during this period, finishing up the classic songbook concept albums she made between 1956 and ’64. She’s funny as hell and full of playful inventiveness and joyful energy. I’ve always thought of her as the most precise and entertaining scat vocalist in jazz, but this set makes it plain that her improvisational skills run much deeper, whether she’s making up lyrics—as she does on a spontaneous version of “Candy” when she discovers that one of its authors, Mack David, is in the audience—or taking on different voices for a laugh.

It’s a pretty significant package of music, all of it beautifully recorded, and though the public hardly needs to be prodded to reconsider Fitzgerald, this release has certainly improved my appreciation of her vast talents.

Today’s playlist:

Joe Newman Quintet, At Count Basie’s (Mercury)
Various artists, Siamese Soul: Thai Pop Spectacular Vol. 2 1960s-1980s (Sublime Frequencies)
Syreeta, Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta (Hip-O/Motown)
Xavier Cugat, The Original Latin Dance King (Columbia/Legacy)
Various artists, Shake What You Brought: Soul Treasures From the SSS International Label (Sundazed)

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