On this Amazon offering, these historic recordings--made mostly in 1939--represent a crucial period for Billie Holiday, who had already achieved some success as a jazz singer recording for Columbia but had yet to really reach her peak as a performer or icon. The Commodore Master Takes, recorded for Milt Gabler's small independent label, were a step towards Holiday's eventual infamy, thanks notably to the recording of "Strange Fruit," a controversial song about lynching that Columbia Records simply refused. Recording with several small bands that seemed to understand the nuances of her voice perfectly, Holiday is in full command of her faculties here, without a trace of her later deterioration. Instead, we have a singer bearing all the bittersweet conviction of the best blues stylists. Songs like "How Am I to Know?" and "My Old Flame" simply smolder, and the band's support is understated, not overpowering. Holiday is the show here. In its own way, that sets a precedent, considering this was still the big-band era, and a jazz singer with such sparse backing was still an anomaly.
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