I really made an effort to learn more about Billie Holiday when I turned 24 years old. Before then, I knew little about who she was. I had seen "Lady Sings the Blues," heard a few of her songs and knew the story of her tragic demise. However, I had never listened to Lady Day until I was 24. Don't know what piqued my curiosity back in 1988. Well, that's not exactly true. My musical tastes were maturing. I was becoming patient enough to listen to jazz, and not just the jazz/funk/rock fusion that I had been grooving to since the 1970s. I was playing straight ahead acoustic stuff. I wasn't ready for Ornette Coleman yet, but I was picking and choosing stuff from enshrinees in the jazz hall of fame, and Billie Holiday definitely has her own wing in that mythical hall. Besides, I was fresh out of college on my first journalism job and far away from home, and still somewhat ill at ease socially. Songs like "Solitude" and "Good Morning Heartache" certainly resonated.
So, I picked up a two Billie Holiday albums. The first was a compilation that included songs Holiday made famous. That compilation included the two above listed songs, as well as tunes like "God Bless The Child," "Them There Eyes" and "Ain't Nobody's Business." I went out and bought Lady in Satin about two weeks later. Holiday recorded that album, on which she performed with a full orchestra, in 1958. The record came out a year before Holiday died, and the ravages of decades of substance abuse and the mistreatment at the hands of the era's racism were apparent. While Holiday was diminished vocally (meaning she probably wouldn't have made it very far on American Idol), she still knew how to sing. That means Holiday used her instrument to make an emotional connection with her listener, she still had excellent phrasing and she could still tell a story. Don't believe me? Just listen to her angst-filled rendition of "You Don't Know What Love Is."
So it's not surprising that vocalists continue returning to the Billie Holiday catalog more than 50 years after her death. Dee Dee Bridgewater released a tribute album in which the songs are arranged in the straight ahead jazz style that is her forte. On Lady, Lynne Fiddmont's homage to Lady Day, the St. Louis native goes in a different direction. Lady has more of an R&B/jazz/world music fusion feel. That was a good idea. Look, no singer can ever take a song like "Good Morning Heartache" away from Holiday. However, Fiddmont's decision to give the tune a Latin feel that brings to mind some of Stevie Wonder's work in the early 1970s, moves this album away from the kind of rote, by-the-book translation that often makes Holiday covers sound stale.
Fiddmont makes a conscious effort to give us something different. She employs an up-tempo calypso/jazz beat on "God Bless the Child," and infuses "Fine and Mellow," with a neo-soul groove. Meanwhile, "I Cover the Waterfront," combines that late 1960s Burt Bacharach sound with an ending that includes a "On the Dock of the Bay" style whistle.
If you know anything about Fiddmont's history, you know that she has a special connection to Holiday's music, having played Holiday in the musical Dark Legends in Blood. Fiddmont's love for the material is clear, yet, she manages to avoid making these tunes into museum pieces. Holiday was a free spirit who was often limited by the time in which she lived. However, nobody could fence in her music, and on Lady Fiddmont honors Holiday by loosing the fetters. That's a fitting tribute to jazz royalty. Recommended.
By Howard Dukes