Tuesday, June 26, 2007

This Year's Kisses, Billie Holiday and Lester Young

This Year’s Kisses, Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra, January 25, 1937

Song by Irving Berlin

Buck Clayton, trumpet

Benny Goodman, clarinet

Lester Young, tenor saxophone

Teddy Wilson, piano

Freddy Green, guitar

Walter Page, bass

Jo Jones, drums

Billie Holiday, vocal

This is perfection. The composer is America's premier songwriter of the 20th century. The performers, many from the wonderful Count Basie's Orchestra, are among the very greatest of the swing idiom. Lester Young's full chorus tenor sax solo is brilliant, inaugurating a celebrated musical partnership with Billie Holiday that remains among the enduring glories of American music.

Just listen.

But first, listen to Gunther Schuller marvel at Billie's musical prowess:

As one listens to these sides, all from 1937, one is staggered by the realization that we are in the presence of a genius, a twenty-two-year-old girl in full artistic/musical maturity -- a girl who had already been a Harlem prostitute for five years of her young life, drug-addicted, with a chaotic, consistently masochistic love life, a constant witness to the seamier side of the black experience, and more. How such sublime art could flower and flourish in such an abysmal environment is not only a singular tribute to Billie Holiday but to the indestructible power and vitality of jazz itself.

For one not present at Billie's 1930s recording sessions, it remains mysterious as to how she learned these hundreds of songs - and so impeccably. The question arises not out of mere idle curiosity; it is a valid issue: first, because of the technical perfection of her performances, higher and more consistent than any of her accompanists (including even Teddy Wilson, but possibly excluding some of her rhythm section sidemen - like Kirby and Cole - with, to be sure, much less demanding assignments). Second, it is not possible to so thoroughly recompose and improvise upon that many songs without knowing them completely. You can only intelligently deviate from something - perform variations on it - if you know it deeply. (Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz 1930 - 1945)
The form is a minor variant of the AABA, with enough difference between the last A and the first two that it is noted with a ', hence, AABA'.

Intro: Teddy Wilson 0 – 7

First chorus 8 – 1:05

This is Lester Young with an extraordinary sound, new, exciting, different, less flashy than other performers of the day, a sound described as feathery and as lemony. These 32 bars are worth listening to over and over.

A 8 -20

A 21 - 33

B 34 - 51

A' 52 - 1:05

Second chorus 1:06 - 2:07

Here is Billie Holiday, who sounds even more pleased with things generally than usual. You know she’s smiling, after listening to Lester Young's incomparable performance. This was their first recording session together.

Listen to all those sound patterns in the lyrics: alliteration, consonance, and assonance This year’s crop of kisses… The metaphor comes from agricultural economics, which seems like an odd realm to evoke, but then the topic is love, so... Since the crop is sweet, we can assume the kisses are being compared with some kind of fruit. This particular crop, however, grows by the light not of the sun, but of the moon. The metaphor in the last line shifts to fashion. Both fruit and, er, frocks, are seasonal.


This year's crop of kisses
Don't seem as sweet to me.

Bennie Goodman provides some very gentle wailing obbligato to underscore and complete the phrases here.

(Don't tell anyone, but there is a grammatical error in the lyrics here, if you care about such things.)


This year's crop just misses
What kisses used to be.


This year's new romance
Doesn't seem to have a chance
Even helped by Mr. Moon above!


This year's crop of kisses is not for me
For I'm still wearin' last year's love

Third chorus 2:08 - 3:11

Teddy Wilson on piano with Buck Clayton (2:33) on bridge, ensemble on the final eight.