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A Billie Holiday Songbook

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Album Review

The title A Billie Holiday Songbook on this release by the unconventional American pianist Lara Downes may refer to that of George Gershwin's Song-Book for piano composed (or abstracted from his live improvisations) by George Gershwin in 1932. The Gershwin work is probably the nearest point of reference for this collection of piano arrangements of Billie Holiday's hit songs: the textures of most of the pieces are dense, and they depart considerably from the melodies of the originals. Some of them circle back to Holiday by including little details that evoke characteristics of her singing. Really, though, the most significant presence on this album is not Holiday or Downes but the composer Jed Distler, who arranged most of the music (one piece is by jazzman Teddy Wilson and another by Marian McPartland). Distler takes the scope of the music beyond what Gershwin did, aligning the arrangements with various classical models according to the mood of the text and of Holiday's singing in each individual piece. The result, perhaps, is what might have occurred if someone had challenged Gershwin to update the so-called "ragging the classics" contests for the Jazz Age, but as things stand it's quite unusual, and it offers a lens on Holiday's achievement different from what anybody else has accomplished. A typically intriguing release from Downes.

A Billie Holiday Songbook, Lara Downes
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