YESTERDAY I HAD THE BLUES:
THE MUSIC OF BILLIE HOLIDAY
An interesting personal but peripheral observation: I couldn’t immediately come up with a list of male baritone Jazz vocalists whom I listen to on a regular basis. My personal prejudice probably relegated baritones to R&B or Country-Western music, I’m not sure. I eventually got over my stupor and came up with Billy Eckstine, Frank Sinatra, Joe Williams, Kurt Elling, Johnny Hartman and Andy Bey for starters before my recollection really began to flow.
José James made my list as well. Unfortunately, his explorations into Hip Hop and R&B has made a few Jazz critics dismiss James’ skills as a capable Jazz singer. While I still think time and James’ creative evolution will ultimately define how he’ll stand in what sometimes appears to be a static, consensus-blessed list of great Jazz singers—regardless of vocal style—I really dig listening to this work-in-progress vocalist. My raised eyebrow in response to the news that James would devote an album to Billie Holiday songs had little to do with his ability as much as had to do with how Lady Day did more than sing—she placed herself into a state of emotive transmission during her performances which forced everyone to check their own sense of purpose and being, whether they are evil or otherwise. Some would argue that using such a benchmark is unfair to gauge any artist who wishes to show love to a legend through a musical tribute.
With that said, I like what James did here. He and his smash trio of pianist Jason Moran, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Eric Harland get my vote for steering away from simple icon emulation. The gang put their own collective stamp into the tracks, and James allowed the musicians the proper time and space to help define the songs. “Good Morning Heartache” heightens the song’s irony by bringing a sexy delivery; “Strange Fruit” accents a tragic document of domestic terrorism through a minimalist treatment; and “Lover Man” is sheer downtempo heat. Critics, take notice…
(Laughing) Did Brother Samba Touré ever visit Mississippi to get those guitar licks? Gandadiko shows how Africa is the Mother of many rhythms and that some of her offspring make a pilgramage to their birthplace to enhance music in surprising ways. Funky Blues is mixed with film score magic, flashes of Rock and the recent social landscape of Touré’s native Mali to remind you of why the term “headphone music” was invented. It’s a bit trippy and hypnotic at times, and always sway-worthy. Speaking of trippin’, I had my moment when “Su Wililé” came on and I wondered if Bo Diddley came back from the crypt, or was sampled in the tracks…