Monday, June 13, 2011

Two Women

Billie Holiday never would have made it on American Idol. She had a small, somewhat thin voice, and not a lot of range. I don't know if she could hold on to a note until it begged for mercy or make it dance up and down her throat -- the kind of thing that causes Idol judges to swoon -- but I know she had too much good taste and common sense to do so, or maybe too much respect for the music.

I've heard it said that she was lucky in the timing of her birth, because if she'd been born a generation earlier, before microphones made a booming voice that could reach the back of a theater unnecessary, she wouldn't have had a career. I usually think of technology in music as dehumanizing -- something that gives a lot of contemporary singers the robotic voices you hear on Glee (honestly, how much money does that damn high school have that they can afford to autotune everybody in the choir?). But technology and humanity aren't always at odds. Microphones allowed singers to sing more than shout, to be more subtle, more nuanced. It brought more complex humanity to singing, allowing them to express real emotion.

Nobody -- no singer to this very day that I know of -- ever made better use of that nuance. A musician could certainly explain the technique a lot better than I could. She sings off the beat and emphasizes words in ways other singers don't. At the beginning of the video I've posted below, she says she never sings a song the same way twice, never sings the same tempo. I don't think that's really true. If you listen to alternate versions of songs she cut at a single session, there's very little difference in her performances, as if she knew what she wanted on the first take and barely strayed from that vision. But it was true over time. Often she recorded the same song several times over the years, and each time the tempo and phrasing, and even the tone of her voice, changes enormously. It's almost as if a different person came to the song fresh each time.

I don't understand the musicianship behind her timing and phrasing, but I understand the result. She's committed to the song. Every single word has meaning. It's an amazing amalgam of instinct and technique.

This is probably my favorite video of Billie Holiday, singing one of her own compositions, "Fine and Mellow." It's from a television show, "The Sound of Jazz," made in 1957, only two years before her death at the age of forty-four. Time (and a lot of drugs and alcohol) had taken a toll on her voice, which is not as supple or sweet-toned as it was when she was young, but also has a special poignancy and ache to it.

The video is more than eight minutes long, but watch the whole thing. Another reason Lady Day could never have survived American Idol is that you can't squeeze her genius into a minute and a half. Watch her body and her face as she feels -- not just hears, feels -- each of the musicians, including her long-time (but at this point estranged) friend Lester Young (the second saxophonist to come in) take their solos. I swear you can see the music move through her veins; it's that deep inside her. And as she feeds off her fellow musicians, she just keeps getting better.

Commitment. Passion. A belief that at this moment the only thing in the world that matters is this song. A willingness to put your whole soul on the line in the service of your art.

There are very different ways to bring those qualities to a song. Billie Holiday did it by holding back a lot. There's enormous emotion in her delivery, but it's reined in, often even toyed with, so that she sings a happy song with an undertone of melancholy, or a torch song with an element of endurance, even strength. Janis Joplin couldn't have been a much more different singer. She doesn't hold anything back, and the emotion is laid out flat on the stage.

This video has pretty poor sound quality, and the video isn't any better (although I'm kind of fond of the photographer's weird obsession with Janis's feet -- the way she slams the music with them is actually pretty interesting). But it's still one of the most brilliant moments in music ever captured on film.

I get goosebumps every time I watch that performance. The most fierce and honest thing I've ever seen.

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