Nostalgia, remixed

Billie Holiday unstuck in time
By JON GARELICK  |  December 7, 2007
ABUSE YOUR ILLUSION: Rather than bringing Billie Holiday up to date, the remixes make her feel farther away.

On the new Billie Holiday: Remixed and Reimagined (Columbia/Legacy), the diva’s voice flits and twitters among hissing, lumbering trip-hop beats, overlaid modern trumpet, guitar, and organ riffs, and the swelling synths and four-square bass-drum thump and hi-hat afterbeat of disco. Her vocal phrases are cut up, sampled, and sequenced. She’s made to repeat title phrases like “more than you know” over and over. Or she’ll fade down to the repeated echo of a single word: “know . . . know . . . know.” In these vocal snippets, she’s a reanimated corpse, a robot responding to the manipulations of that man behind the curtain. Sometimes her vocal is reduced to a fraction of a syllable — a note that the producer happens to like. She’s sprinkled like fairy dust among the beats.

It’s not that I think Billie Holiday: Remixed and Reimagined is some kind of unforgivable desecration. In fact, I find a lot of it rather pleasant. “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around (Lady Bug vs. Lady Day RR Remix)” concocts a hubbub of handclaps, newly recorded acoustic piano riffs, Lady Bug’s raps, and fractions of Tom Mace’s original clarinet and Richard Clarke’s muted trumpet that brings present and past together in an after-hours club of the imagination. And “Travelin’ Alone” uses Lester Young’s loping, descending tenor-sax riff as a mantra, the piece clacking along on beats like a train down the track — Lady Day alone, on the train to the next gig, dreaming to herself. The Billie Holiday–reissue business feeds our nostalgia for a time we never knew. At its best, Remixed and Reimagined is about nostalgia — Billie’s tinny voice emerging in the din of modern beats as if out of an old radio.

No, what was disheartening about hearing the Billie remix was that it methodically dismantled my last cherished jazz fantasy. For me, part of the whole aura of Billie Holiday has to do with her being in the same room at the same time with Mace, Clarke, Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Jo Jones, and Teddy Wilson. Yes, jazz production has changed just like everything else — and I even like some remixes. Verve did some good ones a few years ago, and Nina Simone — recording 30 years after Billie — fit in well on her own Remixed and Reimagined volume last year, her rock-era productions comporting with the producers’ retro stylings. And the current Miles Davis remix EP Evolution of the Groove (Columbia/Legacy) is in keeping with the Master’s late electric experiments.

But sometimes I just get sick of hearing everything turned into “information” and “signifiers” (“OH! brushes on a snare drum! jazz!”) and would at least like the illusion of a documented performance, of musicians responding to one another in real time. The great, transcendent Billie Holiday — now just another postmodern experience. Fuck.

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