Billie Holiday

Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles

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Billie Holiday's story is so huge, her artistry so vast, and her impact so incalculable, that even attempting to corral a representative sampling of it within a single collection of recordings is an overwhelming, perhaps foolhardy task. Many have tried, of course, and literally hundreds of options of varying quality and legitimacy, scattered across dozens of labels, are available to the consumer. Neophytes, or those not willing to commit to a gargantuan listening session, can settle for any number of single- or double-CD best-ofs that adequately present Holiday's most important, better-known music. Columbia/Legacy's single-disc God Bless the Child: The Very Best of Billie Holiday and the same label's two-disc 2001 Lady Day: The Best of Billie Holiday are ideal for that purpose, the crème de la Billie, devoid of anything not directly tied to her legend. Meanwhile, the devotee, the collector, and the completist can take ownership of massive pieces of the catalog in box sets that might be lavish and smartly curated or shoddy and unworthy. Among the more essential boxed collections of an American artist's work is Legacy's 2001 ten-CD Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933-1944), whose title speaks for itself: everything the singer recorded for the label during those formative years -- her greatest -- is offered in one place, with no value judgment being made as to what's worthy of inclusion and what isn't. Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles pares that same body of material down to four CDs that go beyond the two-disc set yet don't attempt to make a definitive statement. That earlier mega-box was broken down into six discs of master takes and four of alternate takes and other ephemera. Here the masters are again whittled down, to a total of 80, making for a more manageable and, honestly, more listenable set. These are the songs that made Billie Holiday Billie Holiday, arranged chronologically and sensibly, with an eye not toward the scholar but toward the fan. Like the larger box, one can follow the trajectory of Holiday's ascent here, but it's not as easy to get lost or even bored. Needless to say, the Columbia/Legacy sets only cover Holiday's output for that label and its subsidiaries, and those in pursuit of the larger picture will have to locate the later recordings she made for Commodore, Decca, and Verve elsewhere, although that should not be difficult.

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