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How To Cover Billie Holiday

Coincidentally, Francis Davis finds Dee Dee Bridgewater's new record a bit too hairy for his taste. Emarcy Records hide caption

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Emarcy Records

Coincidentally, Francis Davis finds Dee Dee Bridgewater's new record a bit too hairy for his taste.

Emarcy Records

In recent years, the once-regular jazz columnist Francis Davis has been writing fewer and fewer pieces for the Village Voice — but he's found his voice again to write about, well, voices. His latest column addresses Dee Dee Bridgewater and Stephanie Nakasian's differing vocal tribute albums to Billie Holiday.

He has interesting things to say on the aesthetic of the tribute album, and one of its central dilemmas: "If the iconic figure to whom you're genuflecting was as much identified with an approach to material as with the material itself, then doesn't approaching those tunes differently risk sacrificing something absolutely essential?" According to Davis, Bridgewater's project doesn't succeed in full because it departs too strongly from Holiday's approach to material; Nakasian's works a bit better because it has that hint (but not the full odor) of Billie to it.

With imitation on one side, and alienation on the other, it's a thin line to soft-shoe. It gets even harder when you consider the tribute's automatic handicap to originality. "No matter how honorably intended, a tribute to Holiday (or to Ellington, Monk, Miles, Coltrane, etc.) is a tacit attempt by a living musician to do business under the shelter of a recognized brand," Davis writes. It would follow that a successful tribute not only is honest — it has to outwardly appear to be too. Food for thought.

Speaking of Francis Davis and singers, I am reminded of this piece in The Atlantic Monthly a few years ago, in which Davis laments an "epidemic" where "All of a sudden everybody wants to be a jazz singer, or at least to sing standards."

We expect more from singers than we do from instrumentalists, because words speak to us in a way no trumpet or saxophone can — and because their instrument is also ours. It's only natural that we're harder on them when they let us down.

There's a tendency for hardcore, often male jazz fans to be nonplussed by the tidal wave of jazz vocalists so aggressively marketed to us. Of course, our kvetching is always drowned out by the din of cash registers registering cover charge payments or CD purchases. Singers will always command attention. Which makes it hard for the hardcore, often male jazz fan to not appear elitist.

But to his credit, Davis always finds a way to be hard on the letdowns that generates something insightful as a byproduct. It's what the best critics do, and it's another reason it's good to see his byline again.


Related At NPR Music: Dee Dee Bridgewater on Talk Of The Nation, and also singing some of her Billie Holiday tribute.