Discography: A buyer's guide to Billie Holiday

April 09, 1994|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Billie Holiday's recording career began in November 1933, when John Hammond, an A&R (artists and repertory) man at Columbia Records, had her cut "Your Mother's Son-in-Law" with a pick-up band led by Benny Goodman. Her final session came almost 26 years later, in March 1959 with Ray Ellis and his Orchestra.

Between those two dates, Holiday participated in hundreds of recording sessions, cutting sides for Columbia, Commodore, Decca and Verve. In addition to her studio work, dozens of Holiday's radio performances were recorded and eventually released on album.

As a result, dozens of Billie Holiday albums have drifted in and out of print over the years. Right now, the Schwann Spectrum catalog lists 76 titles under her name -- an intimidating number even for devoted fans.

With that in mind, we've assembled a selective discography that should prove less daunting. All albums are in print and available on compact disc.

* The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol. 1, 1933-1935 (Columbia 40604). Her earliest recordings. A mixed bag, some of which sounds very dated.

* The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol. 2, 1936 (Columbia 40790). More early recordings, in which glimmerings of Holiday's mature sound may be found, amid considerable confusion.

* The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol. 3, 1936-1937 (Columbia 44048). Lady Day meets her match in Lester Young, Buck Clayton and Teddy Wilson, resulting in some of her swingingest, most spirited work ever.

* The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol. 4, 1937 (Columbia 44252). More work with Clayton, Young and Wilson, and some of her finest singing on record.

* The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol. 5, 1937-1938 (Columbia 44423). Still more excellent music with the Clayton/Young/Wilson crew, plus some fine work with pianist Claude Thornhill.

* The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol. 6, 1938 (Columbia 45449). Holiday widens her circle of musical acquaintances in this solid but unspectacular collection.

* The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol. 7, 1938-1938 (Columbia 46180). Her last recordings with John Hammond at the helm, this set features solid solos from trumpeter Roy Eldridge but only passable material.

* The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol. 8, 1939-1940 (Columbia 47030). More with Eldridge and Young, and featuring an exquisite rendition of "The Man I Love."

* The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol. 9, 1940-1942 (Columbia 47031). Less jazzy than her earlier work, but with its share of classics, including "God Bless the Child."

* The Legacy 1933-1958 (Columbia 47724, three discs). A compilation of her work for Columbia that doesn't include everything a jazz purist might want, but adds a smattering of rarities.

* Billie Holiday (Commodore 7001). When Columbia didn't want to record "Strange Fruit," it freed Holiday to record it and other tunes for Commodore -- all of which are included here. Not quite her best, but there are some real gems.

* Lady in Satin (Columbia 45234). Recorded at the end of her career, it boasts bloated orchestral arrangement and an extremely worn-sounding Holiday.

* From the Decca Masters (MCA 5766). Jazz purists consider her Decca recordings too slow and syrupy to count among her best work, but this collection is more wheat than chaff.

* The Complete Decca Recordings (GRP 601, two discs). Though interesting, this is probably more of the Decca recordings than most listeners would want.

* Songs for Distingue Lovers (Verve 815 055). Moody, small ensemble jazz session with interesting ideas but not much consistency.

* Lady Sings the Blues (Verve 833 770). Good if patchy performances, emphasizing blues material.

* Solitude (Verve 314 519 810). Smooth and jazzy, with tasty accompaniment from Oscar Peterson, among others.

* Stay with Me (Verve 314 311 523). Some solid singing, some good playing, but not quite enough of either to make this essential.

* The Last Recordings (Verve 835 370). Like "Lady In Satin," the sound is too lush, while her voice is too harsh.

* Billie's Best (Verve 841 434). Not really -- just some of her more commercial work for Verve.

* Lady in Autumn: The Best of the Verve Years (Verve 849 434, two discs). A well-selected, largely manageable survey of her Verve years. Good for beginners.

* The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve 1945-1959 (Verve 314 513 859, ten discs). An awesome amount of music, this includes every note she sang for Verve. Some of it is excellent, some is mediocre, and some is embarrassing, but even the worst moments manage to be listenable.

* Billie's Blues (Blue Note 48786). A haphazard collection of live tracks, boasting some great singing but also tracks where Holiday is only partially audible.

* The Sound of Jazz (Columbia 45234). Not a Billie Holiday disc per se, but it does include her performance of "Fine and Mellow" from the 1957 CBS telecast "The Sound of Jazz."

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