I love Billie Holiday, I love electronic music. I should love, "Billie Holiday: Re-mixed and Re-imagined," right? Well, not exactly.
I met some lindy hop friends at the South Street Seaport last night to catch a performance by some of the DJs and musicians featured on the new Billie Holiday album. It was a pretty low-key event at the beginning, with a small crowd sitting on the pier as the DJ and musicians started their first set. I started ranting about "who was this Billie Holiday guy anyway, and when was he going to show up?" Okay, I thought it was funny.
What was not so funny was how little actual Billie Holiday was featured in the performance.
The opening set was heavily Brazilian-influenced electronica, with the percussionist and sax player grooving along to the DJ. If there was any actual Billie Holiday samples in there, I couldn’t hear them. Some of us tried to lindy hop to the music, particularly my buddy Eff who will dance to anything with a beat. I thought it was mostly a lost cause finding something to swing to.
The next DJ was quite a bit better, throwing in a few Billie samples and jazzing up the music quite a bit. I was still not happy with the layers-on-layers of sound approach, that served to distort any actual artistry in the singing and performing. I was thinking, that sax player seems to be playing some hot licks, but damn if can hear them. And would it hurt for some of Billie’s lyrics to actually be audible and discernable?
That said, I and my friends soon were dancing, with the rest of the crowd following not long afterwards. I love how it takes a critical mass of around a dozen people dancing before the entire room gets up and boogies. If it’s one guy, he’s a a nut. If it’s a couple, people mostly ignore them. But when more than 10 start dancing, that’s the signal that its okay for everyone to join in.
The folks around us seemed to be enjoying our little pack of dancers. We’d dance a few minutes with our partner, pass her off to another lead, do some open break charleston, some fake salsa, and general messing around. Eff is always good about grabbing girls on the sidelines who like they want to dance and getting them into our little lindy mosh pit. Girls always want to dance more than guys at concerts, so it isn’t really hard.
For the funkier mixes, I threw in some popping and breaking, which was a bit hard on the pier planks. I actually broke my sunglasses at one point, which I guess is better than breaking a leg or an arm.
The music just got wackier and less Billie Holiday as the evening went on. Everytime a Billie sample would come up, we’d yell "Billie Holiday!" before it was completely dissolved into the feijoada being cooked on stage. The DJ’s started throwing in other weird samples, seemingly randomly, from Aretha Franklin to Seals and Croft’s "Summer Breeze." WTF?
I mean, come on. At least keep it somewhere in the genre of jazz. It’s not like there isn’t a vibrant jazz electronica genre that has been around since at least the 70s.
Anyway I had a great time, and certainly can’t complain about the ticket price (free.)
But I left the event thinking that this was an opportunity lost. Nate Chinen in a NY Times review (reg required) stated it nicely:
[T]he album suggests a high-gloss fluorescent idyll. This is bad news for Holiday on most tracks… Perhaps the executive producer, Scott Schlachter, who oversaw a similar
project involving Nina Simone last year, emerged from this one with a
new appreciation of Holiday’s miraculous Columbia catalog. Anyone else
with that aim should bypass all middlemen; the remixes may be modish,
but the originals are timelessly modern.
Indeed, Billie’s music has a timely appeal, with her melancholy, miraculous voice owning whatever jazz standard she touched. Would it have killed the producers of the event to let more of her actual music shine through? To let a new audience appreciate this national treasure? Or must we, in our desire to re-mix, mash-up and "re-imagine," garble and distort the voices of those who paved the way for jazz, soul, blues and so many other music genres we love today?