By Gili Malinsky
By Bob Ruggiero
By Hilary Hughes
By Peter Gerstenzang
By David R. Adler
By Devon Maloney
By Brian McManus
By Jessica Hopper
The snatch of lyric that kept going through my head as I listened to Eleanora Fagan and Stephanie Nakasian's much more modest Billie Remembered was from Irene Kitching and Arthur Herzog's "Ghost of Yesterday"—"mournfully, scornfully dead." Though the song isn't on either album, I think that insistent internal rhyme personifying a lost love came to mind because it uncannily describes a contemporary jazz scene haunted by totemic figures long departed. No matter how honorably intended, a tribute to Holiday (or to Ellington, Monk, Miles, Coltrane, etc.) is a tacit attempt by a living musician to do business under the shelter of a recognized brand. In Holiday's case, that gardenia amounts to a logo.
Even so, we can all name albums on which retracing the footsteps of giants, though they risk sinking in them, yields deeply satisfying results, and though Carmen McRae's 1962 Lover Man, which caught both Holiday's ups and downs, will forever remain the gold standard, Billie Remembered joins it near the top of the list. Nakasian, who is white, understandably shies away from Holiday's more racially or autobiographically charged material, instead focusing on the ebullient sides she recorded with leading lights of the swing era in 1935 and '36, when she was barely out of her teens and still laughing at life. These are songs frequently dismissed as piffle, but no one needs to apologize for "These Foolish Things" or Dorothy Parker's charming lyrics to "I Wished on the Moon," or minor items like "It's Like Reaching for the Moon" and "No Regrets," which still have Billie's fragrance on them.
The album's triumph is largely one of context. Along with pianist Hod O'Brien (Nakasian's husband and music director), the seven-piece band includes tenor saxophonist Harry Allen, trumpeter Randy Sandke, and alto saxophonist and clarinetist Dan Block, all of whom have long evinced genuine affinity for '30s jazz styles. When was the last time you heard rhythm guitar on a jazz record? The venerable Marty Grosz again proves himself the best in the business of selfless propulsion since Freddie Green, and the only apt word for his chording behind Nakasian on the verse to "These Foolish Things" is "lovely."
None of which would matter if Nakasian didn't have a keen appreciation of the era herself. A regular on the public-radio program Riverwalk, she can be a talented mimic, and if all you knew by her was Thrush Hour, a 2004 CD on which she pointlessly does 20 songs in the styles of singers ranging from Bessie Smith to Blossom Dearie, you'd think that's all she is. But here, as on her earlier salutes to June Christie and Lee Wiley, she gives you just enough of the original artist to acknowledge a prior claim to these numbers. Although in her fifties, Nakasian captures some of the youthful Billie's lilt—and she has enough confidence in herself and in her honoree to know that a little lilt goes a long way. You might never know what Billie Holiday actually sounded like from Eleanora Fagan. But Billie Remembered would at least give you the right idea.