BOSTON — Interest in the music of Billie Holiday, arguably the greatest jazz vocalist ever, has grown immeasurably since her death 38 years ago. Holiday's timeless appeal has something to do with commercial forces reducing her to an archetypal "unlucky in love" African-American blues-belter - an image emblazoned on T-shirts and mugs.
But more to the point, Holiday's recordings appeal as musical dramas addressing the deep emotional needs of listeners. This appeal is showcased in her recordings during a powerful period from 1939 to 1944 when she recorded for the tiny Commodore label. "The Complete Commodore Recordings" (GRP Records) comprises 45 selections (18 songs with alternative versions), all available on CD for the first time.
In spite of the dizzying number of Holiday discs available, this two-disc set deserves special attention. Holiday's recording career was captured by four companies: Columbia, Commodore, Decca, and Verve. Columbia, which produced her first and final record, matched the singer with major jazz instrumentalists while saddling her with trite songs. Decca treated her as a pop rather than a jazz singer and surrounded her with lush string orchestras. Verve combined top jazz bands with meaningful standards and chronicled Holiday's last decade, marked by erratic singing.
But Commodore Records, led by Milt Gabler, offered low-key but accomplished jazz backing. The best-known Commodore recording is the least typical. "Strange Fruit" is a harrowing protest song against racist violence. Nearly all her other performances for Commodore were sharply etched songs about searching through life's labyrinths for enduring love.
The song titles tell a story universally understood: "Embraceable You," "How Am I to Know," "I'll Be Seeing You," "Lover, Come Back to Me." While Holiday recorded these numbers for other labels, these versions are definitive by virtue of her galvanizing projections of various personae.
Few vocalists have ever projected such a range of self images. She's young and seasoned, cynical and upbeat, and self-pitying and defiant.
By lagging behind the stated beat and crooning syllables into trumpet-like sounds, Holiday became the ultimate singer of the quest for romantic love, a theme as timeless as her artistry.