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.