Her voice is not what it's all about. There are no show-stopping high notes, and her low range starts to sound more scratchy than dramatic. There is an occasional sloppiness in her diction; words seem to slur unintentionally. And don't expect scat singing in the choruses. But you can't stop listening. Every single word of pain, of love and hope is genuine. When listening to a recording of her singing "Don't Explain," you can feel guilty for things you've never even done. She brought a cynical understanding to love songs like "P.S. I Love You," but she never sounded like she had given up hope. When BILLIE HOLIDAY sang, she meant it.
This Saturday, the Spokane Jazz Orchestra will pay tribute to her musical legacy, when it wraps up its 26th season with "A Tribute to Billie Holiday" at The Met. The concert will feature the orchestra alone, and in collaboration with New York vocalist Gail Nelson, who will be bringing the spirit of Holiday's musicianship to live performances of many of her most famous songs, like "God Bless the Child," "Strange Fruit" and "What a Little Moonlight Can Do."
"I sing in my voice, but phrase certain songs closely to her -- to give the essence of the period of the song," explains Nelson. It's something that she's had a good deal of experience with, having starred as Holiday in the long-running, one-woman show about Holiday, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill.
"From listening and reading about her life and times -- putting together the acting qualities for the show -- made me very much aware about how poignant her singing was in how she expressed herself. She never sang a song the same way twice. If you listen to her recordings, they are always different. She had such feeling. You feel a part of her life when you listen to her sing. And so we don't try to copy her, but we do try to give a sense of her phrasing, and the style of the music of the era. It's the way that she would backbeat -- sing off the beat. The way she would push certain words, like 'pain,' and 'heart,' things like that."
The emotional power of Holiday's performances earned her a lasting place in the pantheon of jazz vocalists, and she continues to be a standard of raw honesty and communication for musicians. However, Nelson is quick to point out that her own life has been much happier than Holiday's famously tragic one.
"Billie Holiday wasn't my favorite singer when I was learning. But when I discovered her, it was her feeling... her honesty in her singing. I think the only things we have in common were that we both grew up in Maryland, we both lived on 44th Street in New York and we both loved to sing. Everything else was very different.
"Her life was never completely satisfied. She was a drug user for much of her life, and battled inner demons. And she always had bad luck with men. After she moved to New York, to live with her mother, she started going to nightclubs. And her life became the night element. And her friends became the night people. And she would club hop, listening to the musicians, listening to the horn riffs and taking her vocal cues from horn players. They responded to her because she was a good listener, and they enjoyed working with her because she was a musician in that sense. She fed off the music."
Holiday's strong collaboration with the musicians that she worked with is echoed in the relationship between Nelson and the Spokane Jazz Orchestra. Saturday's concert will mark Nelson's fourth appearance with the orchestra, the last more than six years ago. Nelson is delighted to be back.
"We had such a great collaboration in the past, they have been very kind to ask me out again. The orchestra is marvelous -- a collection of fine musicians who have played and performed professionally around the country. And they are great, a big orchestra; and a singer doesn't get the chance to play with an 18-piece orchestra very often. It's either a symphony or a small combo. Adding the additional horns that Spokane has is a thrill."
The SJO Tribute to Billie Holiday is at The Met on Saturday, May 12, at 8 pm. Tickets: $10-$19.50. Call: 325-SEAT.
by Mike Corrigan
JILL COHN doesn't have a writing method that she can easily pass down to those burning with the desire to forge thoughts and feelings into song. In fact, the Seattle-based performer isn't sure herself where her song ideas come from. All she knows is that they do come. And when they do, she wants to be open and ready to receive.
"Songs approach me more than I approach songs," she says. "I have this theory about songwriting. I kind of feel like every song's already been written, and when a song comes to me, it's like that song has chosen me in a weird kind of way. Then it's my job to hone the song and deliver it in a way that first and foremost is going to be meaningful to me, but then hopefully will also connect with other people."
With her warm, immediate voice, lilting melodies, spare and graceful guitar and piano-based arrangements and direct, honest lyricism, it appears that Cohn is fulfilling her destiny as song recipient quite nicely. At times, however, she questions her own worthiness.
"Sometimes a song will land in my back yard, and I'm like, 'Are you sure? I'm an independent singer-songwriter. You're not going to get heard that much. Do you want to go someplace else?' "
Spokane audiences will get to meet and greet Cohn for the first time Saturday night at the Shop, where she will perform with her band (Brady Kisch on bass and Shane Trout on drums).
Her new album, entitled The Absence of Moving, is her fourth song collection since she began performing original material five years ago.
"It's not necessarily a departure from what I've done before but definitely an improvement," she says of the new album. "I recorded it when I was here at home in Seattle with my band, so I think there's much more of a cohesive sound to the record."
The album was recorded in between (and paid for with proceeds from) Cohn's tours.
"I'd be home for three or four weeks and we'd record like one or two tracks, and then I'd leave again to go on the road. Financially, that was the only way to make it work. You know, doing the pay-as-you-go kind of thing."
Cohn -- who usually hits the road as a solo performer -- is excited about the prospects of having her band along for the first part of this tour.
"I always try to leave room for my players so they can stretch out and bring their own music to my music. That's when it's really exciting. The live experience is just that, a live experience. And the idea is to create, not recreate."
And yet, as her own agent and tour manager, Cohn must somehow, at some point, switch from right brain to left and attend to the business of performing.
"Music is the only vocation I know of that you could dedicate your whole life to and people would still want you to do it for free," she laughs. "It's hard to say no because as a musician, your whole thing is getting out there and playing. So it's a weird thing to be in a profession where you're spreading the love around but then you still have to put gas in your car. I think it's really important to strike that balance between business and what you love to do. I do all my business before I leave so that when I leave, I get to be just in the music. That's the way it's got to be."
Jill Cohn performs with her band at the Shop, 924 S. Perry, on Saturday, May 12, at 7 pm. Cover: $5. Call: 534-1647.
Salt of the Earth
by Mike Corrigan
John and Anna Peekstoks form TELYNOR, a modern instrumental/vocal duo whose roots reach into some of most ancient earth in the folk tradition. Their melodies are drawn from sources centuries old and are translated for today's audiences with the aid of an incredible array of exotic, antiquated Old World instruments, including cittern, hurdy-gurdy and nyckelharpa.
They perform at the Roosevelt Elementary multi-purpose room on Saturday night. Local Celtic duo Jadis (comprised of James Funke Loubignac and Jan Turley) will also appear.
It's not too surprising, really, that Telynor is able to reach audiences raised on popular music with their blend of original tunes and age-old covers. The antecedent European musical forms that inspire them are also the basis of most American music, particularly folk and country and by extension -- blues and rock and roll. Also, though the group's repertoire comes primarily from the British Isles, France and Appalachia and reflects traditions that can be traced back to Medieval times, they approach performing with an energy and fire that one might associate with the blues or even rock (in fact, John began his musical journey as a rock drummer).
This Spokane Folklore Society-sponsored performance offers local music lovers a glimpse into a world of sound long remembered and enduring yet rarely experienced with such purity, authenticity and passion.
Telynor will perform with Jadis at Roosevelt Elementary School on Saturday, May 12, at 7 pm. Tickets: $10; $8, for SFS members; $6, for children age 12 and younger. Call: 624-3360.
Angel from Montana
by Sheri Boggs
The last time we saw singer/songwriter JENN ADAMS it was midwinter and outside the Shop's garage windows, enormous snowflakes tumbled down from the night sky. The crowd was small, but appreciative as Adams ran through her set list playing familiar covers (John Prine's "Angel from Montgomery," Gillian Welch's "Pass You By") and songs of her own invention ("Joliet," "All These Attachments"). The steam from the espresso machines and the cozy Shop environment gave the evening a sense of intimacy, of taking part in a "happening" that was evenly matched by Adams' beautiful voice and skilled guitar work.
This time around, Adams will be finishing up her third CD, which has been recorded at the Shop. "This will be our last night of recording material for the new album, so I'm pretty excited," says Adams from her home not far from Missoula.
Her first two CDs, Water and In the Pool, have earned her both praise from the critics and comparisons to Rickie Lee Jones, Shawn Colvin and Joni Mitchell. If you've ever been to a Jenn Adams show, however, you know that she takes her talent in stride. Easygoing, straightforward and just happy to be playing, Adams is not to be missed.
Jenn Adams plays at the Shop on Thursday, May 10, with Tyler Freeman opening at 6:30 pm followed by Adams at 7:30 pm. Cover: $5. Call: 534-1647.