Rain and cold weather brings indoor sessions and whisky bars where everyone is trying to convince themselves they’re actually still in the 1940s. As Sydney slowly gentrifies and turns into a city of faux-speakeasies, one of the positive byproducts is that you’re liable to hear a lot more jazz than you would have in the electro-dance days of yore. Only a few weeks ago, I sat in a leather-bound remake of one of the city’s most notorious house clubs and swirled scotch as the marvellous tones of Billie Holiday filled the room. She was singing a standard, one I’ve heard done by some of her contemporaries in the Greats section; Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke. But the great thing about these numbers, especially ones written by the Gershwins, is the unique attitude each vocalist brings to their interpretation. And there in that reformed den of vice made over to look like an even older den of vice, I decided that Holiday’s might just be my favourite.
Billie’s ‘Let’s Just Call The Whole Thing Off’ sits on a compilation record of hers that I also happen to own on vinyl called ‘Billie Sings The Blues.’ Despite the title, this is perhaps the most jubilant track there. And it’s about breaking up. Or at least the prospect of it. One thing you get from a classic is lyrics that match the melody for potency, and the idea of lovers going their separate ways over the pronunciation of ‘potato’ or ‘tomato’ seems pretty old hat, but people have fought over less. A mono recording from the golden years, where jazz horns sound like foghorns and double bass strings walk the notes with out reverberating, it amplifies the potency of Holiday’s voice, which comes out sounding more like a bright brass instrument than anything else. Holiday has managed to to retain her place at the top of the heap due to the kind of effortless style that a thousand women (and men) have since tried to reproduce with little success. Her legato long notes are deep enough to swim in, her slides shiny enough to jump off and the control she has over her vibrato is up there with Nina Simone. It’s practically a crime that this kind of artistry is today mostly appreciated as background music. It’s so good that you don’t even notice it moving between notes, keys or sections. That sort of confident tonal fluidity is currently something that we use machines for.
Standards are so well-known by their third or fourth iteration that there’s no need to stick solidly to the formula. Thus we hear Holiday sidling in behind her band in the B section, taking her time to spell out the melody and make it her own. It’s a strong reminder that we shouldn’t only remember that we love this type of music when the occasion seems readymade for it. Good music, like good scotch, is universal. And it only gets more potent with age.