The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia

God, I don’t know how often I hit the various online shops to check for prices … until I managed to snatch up a copy for 60 Euro on Amazon.fr. In December of 2004, Christmas came two weeks early to this household when “Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933-1944)”, a ten-disc collection the size of a 78 album sleeve, arrived here in pristine-perfect mint condition.

Before I unpacked this stunning box, I opened one of the better wines I had left (a difficult-to-find 1992 “Puyfromage” from one of the smaller vineyards in southern France) and sat there sipping my wine while looking at the as-yet unopened Amazon package.

I wasn’t in a real hurry because I had spent about a year reading the reviews and descriptions, so I knew what was inside:

This box set earns the “deluxe” designation not only because of its handsome packaging, insightful essays by Holiday scholars, and testimonials from the likes of Tony Bennett, Sonny Rollins, and Etta James, but also because of the vastly improved remastered sound that makes Lady Day the definitive issue of Billie Holiday’s pivotal 1930s and ’40s Columbia/Vocalion/Brunswick/OKeh oeuvre. The sides here include epochal collaborations with Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Lester Young, Teddy Wilson, and others. Six-plus discs chronologically present 151 masters, with the rest of the 10 CDs’ space given to alternate takes and radio air checks.” — Rickey Wright (amazon.com)

“[…] the beautiful packaging, exemplary history and critical appreciation (writers include Gary Giddins and Michael Brooks), and the overwhelming force of Lady Day make this a tour-de-force.” — Jules Epstein (jazzmatazz.com)

“This set finally puts Ms. Holiday’s massive contribution to 20th century art in fitting perspective. There are untold hours to spend listening here for the fanatic or the foundling. The package is worthy of your coffee table instead of a book of photographs of who knows what, and the wealth of knowledge it provides about the history of jazz is literally incalculable” (AMG)

“Holiday’s early recordings, available in numerous forms in the past, have never been as comprehensively presented as on Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia, 1933-1944 (Columbia/Legacy). The 230 tracks in this 10-disc set contain definitive readings of standards and obscurities alike, as Holiday and a revolving cast of associates (including Wilson, Benny Goodman, Bunny Berigan, and her musical soulmate, the tenor saxophonist Lester Young) raise the likes of “My First Impression of You,” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” to the same Olympian heights as their readings of ‘Summertime’ and ‘These Foolish Things’. (The Atlantic Online)

So, when I opened it up I was ready (and intoxicated enough to ignore some of the factual errors in Farah Griffin’s essay) for what was inside. Great, or better, fantastic music. Although it is sad that the label was cowardly enough to once again leave out “Strange Fruit”, thereby making this box another incomplete “complete” edition, the music and the majorly improved sound (not perfect by far, but good enough for me) certainly make up for any of the small quibbles one might have. I for one am just glad that this project came through because there are literally millions of tunes lying dormant in some forgotten vaults, attics or garages, waiting in vain to be released.

If you like jazz, there’s no way around Billie Holiday. Starting with her commercial debut on November 27, 1933 with “Your Mother’s Son-In-Law”, which she recorded with a small Benny Goodman group, she developed into the most important and influential jazz vocalist of the past or any other millennium. “The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia” offers up 230 tracks to help trace Holiday’s fascinating development of vocal ability and interpretation, which is just completely fascinating to listen to. The better part, the 153 masters recorded for Columbia and its subsidaries, with the alternate takes – rare or previously unreleased tracks – appearing from disc 7 onwards, makes clear that the Holiday fame is also based on its stunningly huge array of absolutely stellar contributors. The arrangement of the tracks, first presenting the masters and then collecting the alternate takes, avoids the old problem of forcing listeners to hear many alternate takes in a row, although some fans of a chronological order might disagree.

The liner notes by Gary Giddins are actually good, and critical remarks are there, and the detailed track-by-track data don’t leave anything to be desired.

If you want to hear what Billie Holiday was all about, you have to get this reissue set, and if you want to hear more, you should have a look out for the older Verve box (covering the years 1945 – 1959), which collects all the alternate takes and studio chatter as well, or the newer master take box, which was just released and might be a bit more accessible.

No household should be without these.
Beg, steal or borrow.

Posted by Volkher Hofmann

Volkher Hofmann (deus62) has been blogging on and off since the 1990s and deus62.com is all that is left. He loves music, literature, drumming and, most of all, real life. He thinks the open web is much more important than social networks, closed-in ecosystems and other severely commercialized online endeavors.

  1. Looks like an incredible collection. But, no Strange Fruit… that makes me sad.

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  2. Yes, Zach, it is a great collection. “Strange Fruit” has suffered from editorial cowardice, stupidity and ignorance for decades. It’s a real pity. There might be another post in there somewhere.

    P.S.: I saw you added the Alexander/Mallone/Brown disc to your Amazon wishlist. I hope someone gets it for you … 😉

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  3. I have this box and I must admit that I was very disappointed with the sound quality; Billie’s voice and some of the instruments at times sound very harsh and piercing. Judging by other issues of this Sony-owned material, such as the excellent Teddy Wilson CDs with Holiday on the Scottish Hep label, which were mastered by the late John R.T. Davies, the Sony mastering could have been so much better. A missed chance in my view.

    As for “Strange Fruit”, Holiday wanted to record the song but her recording label, Columbia (now Sony), refused to record it, afraid as they were about the reactions from Southern record retailers and their own radio network, CBS. They did, however, allow her to record it for Milt Gabler’s label Commodore, which was and is no part of Columbia/Sony, so it couldn’t be included on the Sony box – unless they had leased it, of course.

    The Sony box is now out of print.

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  4. Hans,

    for me, having developed a more audiophile taste has also been a (rather steep) learning curve. I also used to belong to the group that believed that a more recent reissue must automatically have better sound. We both know how wrong I was.

    Add to that my limited budget, and these past two or three years I’ve become increasingly pissed off about having bought stuff for a lot of hard-earned cash that – in comparison with often much older and, especially, cheaply available former (re)issues – wasn’t worth it.

    And … I’m still learning.

    In many cases – and it’s going to stay that way in my collection for the foreseeable future – I know today that I bought (in some cases only somewhat) inferior reissues. My choices are limited because I don’t have the cash to re-purchase a lot of the stuff I have (in form of older releases). Sure, I could sell a lot of stuff via eBay and other “outlets”, but in my case (no car, post office far away) it’s often not really a viable solution. I have rebought some of my favorite stuff and simply placed it next to the inferior material, hoping that whoever inherits it all won’t bargain it away to a thrift store, but … that’s it.

    On top of that, my system is not as stellar as many other people’s. I did take totally botched as well as near perfect remasters to my HiFi shop and selected both speakers and system to somewhat cover up (as much as that is possible) the deficiencies of many modern remasters, as well as trying to find a system that would make some of the many hundred “bad” CDs I bought bearable.

    Stupid, I know, but to take the Paul Butterfield twofers discussed on the Steve Hoffman forums as an example, they do remain listenable and, most importantly, more or less enjoyable on my home stereo (as long as I don’t turn them up too much).

    Then again, I really don’t envy those people who have incredibly transparent setups because their ears have probably rotted away in these few years of the new millennium.

    The other day I took some of my stuff to a total audiophile geek with a surprisingly cheap but extremely revealing setup and I could have cried.

    ‘Nuff said.

    In 2006 I was bowled over by the presentation of the Holiday material, today I would approach the sonic qualities much more critically.

    To be quite honest though, I have not developed an “immediate” ear yet to discern bad from good or great quality at a level others can. See, I often (wrongly) assume(d) that old material must automatically sound worse … until I heard such stellar recordings as the Shelly Manne material from the Black Hawk that has such presence that much of what I have pales in comparison.

    What does that mean? I’m often happy (for example about the “three’fer” that Verve put out, collecting that Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald material … until I actually buy and listen to the (re)issues that came out a decade or more before.

    I hear knowledgeable people complain.
    I get frustrated.
    I buy into a single older release to check out the difference.

    Then I start crying.

    Today I could kick myself sideways thinking of the amount of money I invested into inferior mastering jobs. Even some of the Mosaic stuff sounds like crud when compared to some single releases.

    I also have to admit that I’m terribly impatient when it comes to buying stuff. When a release pops up I usually want to jump on it, EVEN if people warn me about it. Hell, I don’t feel like waiting until I can afford the three trillion percent more costly Japanese or whatever remaster or until an older one might become available at a price I can pay.

    This hobby of ours is quite frustrating, isn’t it?

    I could write another 1000 lines, but right now I have to vacuum this place.

    Cheers!
    Thanks a million for helping readers here get a different spin on what I wrote (what others often spwe out via Amazon and other sites)!

    And I mean that.

    Volkher

    P.S.: BTW: This version is going live soon. Check the old site for an announcement this weekend and the new version going live within a short period thereafter.

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  5. Hans & Volkher

    When I bought the Box I gave the the 8 or 9 volumns of CBS single CD to a friend who had previous gave me his set of Quad Pre & Power Amp.

    I haven’t made comparison of the sound between – is the sound of the Box really that bad. My memory is that the sound of the individual CDs were not good.

    For me, I have a smooth Hi Fi set up which was in use for 20 years but I enjoy collecting ols re-issued jazz more than pure analysis of the sound

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  6. I wouldn’t say the sound is that bad, but it should and could have been better. For a project like this one, remastering from the original source material should stay faithful to the original sound, which in many cases on this reissue wasn’t done. If you check John R.T. Davies’s (a brief interview) material (Hans referred to him above), and maybe you already have some of his remastering work, you can clearly hear the difference between what is possible in regard to sound nowadays (if applied by someone with “able” ears and “sensitive” hands) … and the Sony result.

    In summation, you could say that the box is still great, but I would agree with Hans today that it was certainly a missed opportunity and, if I’m not wrong, maybe the last opportunity to remaster the entire material in the best possible sound. I doubt someone is going to sit down one more time and do all that work.

    In the end though, it’s always the music that counts … and that is mostly spectacular!

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  7. I have this box set also but am missing disc 2. If anyone knows where I can get it, to complete the collection, I would be most grateful.
    K.

    Reply

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