Socialist Worker

Billie Holiday cover albums forecast a new storm

Issue No. 2449

Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday (Pic: Flickr)

How can the modern day jazz artist hope to celebrate the centenary of the legendary Billie Holiday by covering her songbook?

There’s certainly no value in just trying to replicate her unique vocal inflections or sense of timing, because she will always be better than you.

Jose James and Cassandra Wilson know this and in very different ways have tried to capture Holiday’s spirit instead.

Her style was marked by an ability to combine fragility with enormous power and presence that were an act of defiance.

James’s approach is sparse and rests heavily on his precise vocals.

Using only a four piece band, he extends syllables to twist the meaning of well-known song lines. On Loverman we get Holiday’s pain writ large, but we definitely know those longings are not hers alone.

James’s brilliance is in the way he phrases each particular line.

Wilson heads in the other direction completely.

The songs are richly filled with orchestration, slide guitars, accordions and sometimes veer into darkness. Perhaps unsurprising, given the album is produced by Nick Launay of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

Sometimes Coming Forth sounds like it has been recorded today, but in the kind of bar that Holiday might have played in during the 1950s. 

At other points Wilson’s voice feels like part of a modern soundscape.

In either case, there’s no way this is simple pastiche.

James and Wilson each cover the anti-lynching song Strange Fruit in ways that honour its history but which remake it for today. 

Both versions remain harrowing in their own right—and both tell us that there’s a storm coming in the US. 

Yesterday I had the blues
Jose James
Blue Note Records

Coming forth by Day
Cassandra Wilson
Sony Records
Out now

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Tue 14 Apr 2015, 16:52 BST
Issue No. 2449
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