Yesterday, commemorating the centennial birthday of Billie Holiday, I wrote on Twitter that the woman only really ever sang one song, and that it went basically like this: Please love me. Hers was a song of brokenness and frailty, and of the strange beauty and grace that emanate from the cracks in a fractured heart—a resonance made all the more tragic and acute by its parallels in the singer’s tough, battered personal life.
The occasion of her 100th birthday—or, you know, just the ongoing fact that she is as great as any American singer of all time—has of course brought with it some tribute albums, particularly from jazz and soul vocalists who can’t help but walk down the trail that Billie blazed. The last two weeks have brought a couple of particularly fine ones—Jose James’ Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday and Cassandra Wilson’s more punningly titled Coming Forth by Day.
Of course the albums share some ground—“Good Morning Heartache” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” appear on both records, and so does “Strange Fruit,” which is pretty ballsy given how closely associated that song is with Holiday and how unimpeachable her version remains—but the greatest similarity is that both records are fairly brooding and introspective, dwelling in melancholy and if anything playing up Holiday’s wistful loneliness, even if neither album conjures it as gracefully as Holiday did in her prime.
It is worth noting that there was always more to Billie Holiday than the “loser songs” for which she is best remembered, other facets of her music exemplified by the he said-she said humor in “My Sweet Hunk ‘o Trash” (one of her great duets with Pops), the defiant stomp of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business if I Do,” or the late night revelry of “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer.” Neither of these new tribute albums stray too far from the more desolate stuff, though they each at least cast a glance in that direction—James in the breakbeat, full-band workout in “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” a charmer in its kinetic jazz energy, and Wilson with some warm-ish takes on Holiday-associated standards like “The Way You Look Tonight.”
James’ album is probably the more memorable of the two, if for no other reason than the great alchemy of “Moonlight” and, most significantly, his haunting and genuinely moving take on “Strange Fruit,” done here as a bare-bones spiritual complete with spectral clapping. He is one of the few to tackle this weighty work and actually make it his own, certainly not replacing Holiday’s version but actually managing to cast it in a new light. Wilson messes around with the melody and rhythm of the song quite a bit but her version—slow, crawling, creepy—doesn’t quite distinguish itself.
Which is not to say Coming Forth by Day is a bad or a rote record: Co-produced by Nick Cave’s go-to guy, Nick Launay, the record offers a kind of stylized, noir-ish version of dark Americana, moody and evocative but malleable enough for Wilson to really monkey with these songs and bring her own take to them. Jones’ album is shorter and is more focused on the interplay of a live jazz trio, including pianist Jason Moran, though ultimately both albums are—with notable exceptions—pretty somber, their inventions never quite conveying a sense of play. No, while both albums are clearly loving, they couldn’t rightly be called warm, and if their emphasis on melancholy is in many ways a fine tribute to Billie Holiday, it also underscores why she remains the most beautiful loser of them all.