Friday, July 02, 2010

Marsalis and Galliano: From Billie to Edith

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CD Review: From Billie Holiday to Edith Piaf

by Alicia Benjamin

Here’s what Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf had in common:

- They were both born in 1915.

- They both spent years away from their mothers – Piaf’s mother abandoned her when she was an infant, and Holiday was raised mostly by relatives. She also spent some time in a school for troubled girls when she was nine.

- Both women had brushes with prostitution. Holiday actually worked as a prostitute in New York City and Piaf virtually grew up in a house of prostitution that her grandmother ran in Normandy.

- They both used drugs heavily.

- The two women are considered great artists and icons in their respective countries.

- Their voices are distinct. When you hear Billie Holiday sing, you know it’s her, just a few notes into the song -- the same can be said about Piaf.

- Both women sang passionately about unrequited love or love gone wrong in a way that has made people drop their heads and cry.

It’s easy to see how musicians Wynton Marsalis and French accordionist Richard Galliano would decide to make a recording which pays tribute to these two gifted and tragic ladies. When one considers that Holiday and Marsalis were heavily influenced by Louis Armstrong -- that Armstrong made Piaf’s hit “La Vie en Rose” one of his own signature numbers -- and that both Galliano and Armstrong greatly admired pioneer jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown – the Marsalis/Galliano collaboration, “From Billie Holiday to Edith Piaf: Live in Marciac,” makes perfect sense.

Recorded live at the Marciac Jazz Festival two years ago, this recently released CD seamlessly blends the sensuous and haunting qualities of Holiday and Piaf’s music. Marsalis, his Quintet, and Galliano go back and forth between compositions made famous by both women, effortlessly establishing and changing rhythms, moods, and phrasing -- making the recording one harmonious love letter to the two chanteuses.

Piaf’s Songs

The musicians start off with “La Foule,” a jovial Peruvian Waltz that Galliano bounces playfully through with his accordion. This number also features festive and nimble piano playing by Dan Nimmer, and Marsalis is steady in the background, supporting the groove. (Both Galliano and Marsalis adeptly switch from lead to accompanist on this project when necessary.)

“Padam…Padam” conjures up images of the mountains in the South of France. Beginning with piano tinkling, Galliano’s accordion gives the song a klezmer feel and Marsalis comes in brassy and strong midway on the song, giving it a dash of seduction. The tambourine player spices up the number with all kinds of exotic, syncopated sounds.

Holiday’s Songs

On “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” the band takes off right away with a fast tempo that’s a little faster than Billie did it, but maybe that’s to take the listener’s mind away from Holiday’s impeccable tackling of the song. Marsalis’ and Galliano’s version is playful and showcases the two musicians’ ability to collaborate as artists together, and also with the drummer Ali Jackson and bass player Carlos Henriquez. Marsalis shows off his ability to do elaborate runs on this piece, as Jackson shows off his high hat ability, and the bass player contributes audacious rhythm with some nimble thumping.
Of course Marsalis and Galliano couldn’t possibly pay tribute to Billie Holiday without including a version of “Strange Fruit” on the CD. Marsalis starts the song -- infamous for its horrific and poetic images of lynchings -- with appropriate trumpet wails and calls. His passionate, harsh screeches in the beginning of the song sound like somebody shouting in church who “gets happy” and angry at the same time.

Billie

Galliano’s original song “Billie,” which sentimentally honors Holiday, begins with soft piano notes and flows smoothly into a graceful and romantic accordion solo by Galliano. Marsalis compliments “Billie” with rich elegant playing, reminiscent of his style on the “Hot House Flowers” CD from the mid80s. Galliano’s “Billie” is both sad and sensual at once – just like the Lady herself.

With From Billie Holiday to Edith Piaf: Live in Marciac, Marsalis and Galliano fluidly come together and with them, they carry Holiday and Piaf into the future, where they unmistakably belong.