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A few gems save Quintessential Holiday -- Volume 7

THE QUINTESSENTIAL BILLIE

HOLIDAY -- VOL. 7 (1938-39)

Columbia Records.

By CHRIS WANJEK

IDON'T THINK Columbia Records wanted to release The Quintessential Billie Holiday -- Volume 7, which captures Holiday's career from 1938 to 1939. Columbia did its best to avoid this period, which was marred by Holiday's feud with producer John Hammond and her overall lack of interest in her own music. Columbia slowly stretched their first six volumes over the period from 1933 to 1937, hoping it would never reach Volume 7.

But Columbia didn't coward when it finally hit the 1938-39 roadblock, arguably Holiday's most disappointing years. Volume 7 is a collection of Holiday's best sessions from the close of the 1930s.

Luckily, the album is saved by a few gems. Some truly boring songs, however, do clutter the collection. And the musicians, sensing this boredom, fall asleep unchallenged by the middle of many songs.

But the album's high points really do save this collection. "Dream of Life" is one of those brooding, sentimental songs that Holiday performs so well. "That's All I Ask of You" and "What Shall I Say" are like many of the songs from Holiday's early career -- simple, yet somehow meaningful when she sings them.

"Long Gone Blues," co-written by Holiday, is terribly blue -- a true masterpiece and the highlight of the album. And "Some Other Spring," her favorite song, brings the second side to a promising close.

"Sugar (That Sugar Baby O' Mine)" really swings with help from Benny Carter's alto sax. But "Hello, My Darling" just gets by, saved at the last minute by Teddy Wilson's piano solo.

The other songs on the album are all seriously flawed. "Under a Blue Jungle Moon" tries to ride on the popularity of those South Sea Island movies from the late 1930s. Nothing could be further from Holiday's style -- or even her existence.

"Let's Dream in the Moonlight" has absolutely no feeling, and the musicians are to blame for this.

Although Billie Holiday was making wonderful music throughout the 1930s, it wasn't until this low period that she ironically gained popularity. John Hammond had something to do with this. Around this time, he and Barney Josephson opened the legendary Cafe Society, a totally desegregated club in New York City which helped break both the color barrier and the Establishment.

Hammond hired Holiday as the nightclub's headliner and also produced many of her recording sessions. This went well until Hammond and Holiday developed conflicting interests. Holiday left Hammond and joined the folks at Commodore by 1940. Surely this is where Columbia's Quintessential Volume 8 will pick up.

Volume 8 will probably be much better. And volumes one through six, for the most part, are better than Volume 7. But don't discard this period of Holiday's career; some of these songs are too wonderful to ignore.

If you are a new Billie Holiday fan, get volumes one or two, or even wait for the release of Volume 8; it will be worth it. If you're already a fan, I don't think you would want to miss "Dream of Life" or especially "Long Gone Blues."