Tackling an entire show of Billie Holiday material is a tall order-- quite a few have done it, and while they may be fine vocalists with heartfelt intentions, they often go for the cliche: the gardenias; heartbreak; heroine haze, and sadness of Billie's later career. They don't quite hit the mark, and, as is often the case with attempts to cover iconic work, their delivery creates an itch they can't quite scratch, only making us long for real thing; running to the turntable (or spotify) for a fix.
In great contrast to the norm, Friday night I went to see my friend and longtime lens subject 'Miss Ida Blue' serve up a Billie Holiday Centennial tribute like no other. She brought the house down in her debut at Joe’s Pub with two standing ovations, lots of laughs, joyful tears, and awe at her incredible vocal abilities and down-to-earth showmanship. Toss in support from her world-class band (Conal Fowkes/piano, Dan Block/tenor sax, Jon-Erik Kellso/trumpet, Jon Gill/guitar, Jay Rattman/clarinet, Brian Nalepka/bass, and Kevin Dorn/drums) and Lady Day had the exquisite tribute she truly deserves, while we in the crowd were treated to a rare and fabulous musical experience.
The main ingredient making this show a standout -other than Miss Ida's dynamic personality and raw talent- was that the material was chosen exclusively from Billie's early work in the 1930’s (arranged for the tribute by Conal Fowkes); a part of her catalog which features music full of joy, romance, and youthful sass. Along with Teddy Wilson and Lester Young, Billie created material during that era ranging from swinging, uptempo, love songs and flirty daydreams, to sublime atmospheres of hopeful longing; all a perfect vibe for Miss Ida to channel. (If you don’t know this first phase of Billie Holiday, give a listen to A Sailboat in the Moonlight, Your Mother’s Son-in-Law, What a Little Moonlight can Do, I Cover the Waterfront, etc, to hear her in a new light.)
Friday night was a true celebration of a great singer who deserves to be remembered for more than her struggles and trials of darkness, but for a time when she was a young singer full of hope- hangin' with the boys; aptly embracing the sounds of their instruments, and echoing in her own unique way. Miss Ida did it her way too. She honored the Billie material perfectly; while transcending the beaten path, and belting it out to a new dimension, and an audience of multiple generations. (Twenty-something hipsters, jazz historians, renown musicians, and casual music lovers young and old were in attendance.) And, while I'm no music critic, I'm willing to bet nobody has done it quite like this before. We all got lifted to another place and time while looking forward to future Miss Ida gigs and seeing where this girl's gonna go! I’d be remiss if I did not also congratulate Billy Jackson (Miss Ida's manager) for his relentless visionary work in putting this night together. What a night. Thanks for keeping great music alive, guys! -WW