Yesterday I Had The Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday
Of all the “100 Year” celebrations to honour Billie Holiday this felt the most necessary – a brave new voice taking on that wonderful music. Because, at the time, Billie Holiday was exactly that: a brave new voice taking on that wonderful music…making that wonderful music, owning that wonderful music. You get the feeling, listening to José James doing his beautiful soft croon (with just enough grit, always) that he knows he’s only ever borrowing these songs, giving them a polish, putting just enough of a spin on them.
I first heard James on Takayu Kuroda’s Rising Son – there he tackled Roy Ayers’ great Everybody Loves The Sunshine, put a soft, warm new spin on it with his creamy, dreamy vocals. That was the preparation for this. Here’s a guy who knows how to let the song be the star, but isn’t afraid to put his own touch on it also. And through doing that he’s paying tribute to the tune and the original artist.
So it is with his reimaginings of a set of Holiday classics.
Also, the band. What a band. Jason Moran, the wonderful pianist, is a crucial component here, the gorgeous rendition of Body and Soul begins with just piano and voice, stately, lovely. Moran is given plenty of chance to shine across the entire album.
The rhythm section of John Patitucci (bass) and Eric Harland (drums) are stalwarts too of course. And the aforementioned Body and Soul is a great example of their tender, sensitive playing. They glide into each tune, soft and supple, subtle support.
The tracklisting is exquisite, of course: I Thought About You, Tenderly, Fine and Mellow, Lover Man, dozens of others from such a spectacular songbook could also have been offered. But what they serve up here is just right. And the weight of expectation grows across the album, our closers being God Bless The Child and then Strange Fruit.
God Bless – the songwriting highlight of Billie’s bold career – is here represented, as it has been so many times, with subtle punch. James reminds of the peak-era Al Jarreau.
But it’s Strange Fruit that is the revelation. Just when you were sure you never needed to hear it again, couldn’t bear to hear it, wouldn’t accept a younger, modern rendition…we get the song in its actual correct setting: it’s a field holler, slow hand claps to accompany and a slow, mournful croon of voices, a capella, with James slowly, surely, soaring.
He called this tribute album a dedication to his “musical mother”. He called it right. She’s been done proud here.