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Notes from My Listening Room #24
By Josh Bizar

Staying Vigilant
Yesterday, Chicago reported more than 2,000 new cases of the virus, the largest one-day increase since testing began. While I do not know if that number comes from better accessibility to testing, or just a continued spike in cases, or a combination of factors, this city is not at the top of the plateau yet. But Chicago is staying strong and vigilant.

Social distancing will probably be here for a long while, even after our governor decides to start opening up the state for the sake of the economy. When that begins, it could be a while before I feel comfortable attending a concert or a major event. For now, I am trying my best to support many of my favorite artists by buying merch or LPs – especially from smaller bands that really need the revenue.

Tomorrow marks the end of my fifth week at home. While I am growing stir-crazy, it makes me feel much better getting to talk to you though this column, via email and texts, and by way of video conferencing. Part of my job is talking to manufacturers and vendors from all over the world. A big part of me takes solace in knowing the whole world is going through this together and, someday soon, we will all come out the other side and begin rebuilding.

Which brings me to introducing an old friend from the Bay Area, Dennis Davis. We met when he was writing for Hi-Fi+ almost 20 years ago and still see each other at hi-fi shows. He's a really warm person who possesses a passion for great music and the very best audio gear on which to play it. He now writes on music and gear for The Audio Beat, a remarkable online magazine you should check out. It is my pleasure to have him contribute his thoughts on Lady Day.

Today's Special Guest Contribution: Billie Holiday Velvet Mood
By Dennis Davis, Lifelong Record Collector/World Traveler/Northern Californian
I've often compiled lists of albums or referred to specific titles as records I'd wish I had with me if I ended up stranded on a desert island. Of course, there are many reasons this could never happen, not the least of which is I take no pleasure from finding myself aboard any vessel in deep water. The whole idea of a desert island list is a metaphor, but the figure of speech has become surprisingly real with our need to isolate at home during the worldwide pandemic. Fortunately, my lock down comes equipped with books, a record library, and a fully functioning stereo system. I find my reading leaning to old favorites about loner protagonists facing spiritual crises, like Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf and Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

The literary emphasis on introspection has influenced my listening in a similar manner. Our time on earth is indeed limited, but during a pandemic, it's inevitable to ponder whether your number could be up sooner than you expected. What music would you find most gratifying as you watch the hourglass drain? No doubt some would turn for inspiration to Beethoven's later string quartets, John Coltrane's Impulse albums, or something equally elevating. But for me, the surest route to inexhaustible gratification comes from song – music that includes the human voice.

Looking down on me from the wall behind my desk are photographs of three singers. A couple of Jim Marshall photographs of Janis Joplin and Grace Slick bring back fond memories. But the most meaningful is a Herman Leonard photograph of Billie Holiday curled up on her doily-covered couch. On a glass coffee table sits a fruit bowl, a couple of porcelain dogs, and a pack of Parliament cigarettes.

I'd hate to live without the music of Beethoven, Coltrane, Joplin, or Jefferson Airplane, but Holiday's music best sustains me through really hard times. Trying to describe her singing is difficult without resorting to metaphor. She drew from a deeper well, channeling her feelings. Whenever I hear Emmylou Harris' song "Deeper Well," I think of Billie. She didn't have to look for water from a well because it sprang naturally from her. Listen to almost any Billie song and you form a picture, with eyes closed and face transformed. Compare that to listening to anything from the great Ella Fitzgerald, and the difference is immediately apparent. Ella's beacon of light shines. It emanates from deep down, and she doubtlessly possessed of one of the most beautiful voices in popular music. But her message came from our known universe – largely, that of the American Songbook.

Holiday's singing is more transformative. She creates her own universe, often taking material far less elevated than that of the great American songwriters before flipping a switch and creating something far greater than anyone could have expected. I'm not a compulsive collector and, as with most records, if a reissue sounds better than the original, the original loses a slot on my shelves. Not so with Billie. I've collected and kept every Holiday original pressing. They stay on the shelf next to reissues from Analogue Productions, Speakers Corner, and Mobile Fidelity.

I love Billie's small voice that often sings behind the beat, a voice that acknowledges the wear and tear life can take on you. During these tough times, what better salve than to hear Billie be transported and, thereby, get transported by Billie. Among my favorites is Velvet Mood on Clef MGC-713. Featuring Harry "Sweets" Edison, Benny Carter, Jimmy Rowles, Barney Kessel, John Simmons, and Larry Bunker, the record features a great band, excellent recording quality, and Billie during the sweet spot in her career. Listen to Billie sing and Kessel's guitar solos on "I Gotta Right To Sing the Blues" or "When Your Lover Has Gone" and see if you aren't taken to a world where your troubles seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Or, to really put your Coronavirus Blues in perspective, queue up "Strange Fruit," recorded earliest on Billie Holiday on Commodore FL 20,006. I truly don't know where I'd be without her.

April 23, 2020

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