I recently went through one of my regular phases of listening to loads of Billie Holiday, basically just trying to figure out how on earth she does it. How does she take a trite, corny song and using just a limilted range and very simple musical vocablary transform it into a profound musical statement.
One of the most remarkable features of her style is the way she will completely recompose (and often improve) the melody of a tune on the spot. I thought it would be a useful exercise to transcribe a performance by Billie and juxtapose it with the original melody to try and analyse a bit what she is doing.
Transcribing any jazz performance always exposes the limitations of the notation system. There's simply no way of accurately notating the variety of effects Billie employs, from glissandos to and from notes, from subtle sharpening or flattening of notes, not to mention the way she plays with the pulse, sometimes dragging behind it, sometimes anticipating it. What I've done is a rough approximation of the line she sings, and the only way to really understand what she's doing is to listen to the recording.
The tune I chose was I'll Never be the Same from a 1937 recording with the Teddy Wilson Orchestra, but in fact I could have chosen virtually any performance from this period as they all contain moments of genius.
The tune starts with an introduction by Lester Young after which Teddy Wilson plays a full chorus of piano before Billie enters at around 1:38
Here's a recording of the song for reference followed by the transcription:
The first thing that strikes me about this transcription is the way that Billie is hearing the time. It seems that rather than hearing it as 4/4 she is hearing each bar as two groups of crotchet triplets. Nearly all her phrases use this triplet feel which creates a very lazy, floaty feel. It's almost as if she's circling around the pulse, hinting at it but never quite stating it directly. (I remember seeing a workshop with Barry Harris where he advises hearing the rhythm in just this way when playing a ballad.)
The next remarkable thing about this performance is some of her note choices. The first note Billie sings is a G natural over an Ab7 chord - a major 7th over a dominant 7th chord!!! She then drops to an E natural which is the the 13th of the G7. She then continues this E natural for the next bar whilst the chords change from Ab7 to G7. The reason this works is because of the resolution of the Ab7 down to the G7. Billie instinctively seems to be hearing these first 4 bars as a G7 chord, which in fact they are, with the Ab7 functioning as a kind of chromatic preparation for the G7 chord. This is why her line works despite seeming to break every harmonic rule in the book!
The orignal melody at bar 1 uses a scalic figure which reflects the chromatic shift from Ab to G in the harmony. Billie completely ignores this and sings her descending Emin arpeggio starting from the G, dropping to the E (the 13th of the G7 chord) and eventually landing on the maj7 of the Cmaj7 chord. This singing of the upper extensions of the chord is a feature of her style, and in some ways anticipates some of the experiments with upper extensions that would happen in the later be-bop era.
Billie in fact reshapes this first phrase from an ascending phrase ending on a high G natural to a descending phrase ending almost an octave lower which seems to better suit the melancholy nature of the lyrics.
In the next line she references the melody a bit more, and this time uses the alternating E to G figure in bar 6 of the tune, although she interprets it in her own way. In bars 9 to 12 she follows the basic contour of the melody but avoids the slightly corny descending sequence prefering to sing simple repeated notes. This use of repeated notes is a device she got from Louis Armstrong and one which she used to great effect.
In bars 13 to 16 she again simplifies the material, singing 8 consecutive E naturals (emphasising the 9th of the chord rather than the root of the melody) before resolving down to the D. This sigh-like descending 2nd interval is another favourite of hers, and she would often ends songs with it.
The next 4 bars are a recapitulation of the first 4, and Billie sings them in almost exactly the same way. In bars 21 to 24 she again follows the contour of the melody but pulls it about rhythmically using triplets and syncopation to make it 'float' more. In bar 26 she does a little downward glissando from the note, which was another effect she sometimes used.
In the last 4 bars, rather than repeat the initial phrase exactly (as happens in the melody) she hits an A natural (the 9th of the G7 chord) before dropping to the E which somehow gives a sense of resolution to the line missing in the the original melody. She continues with a complex triplet rhythm before ending with her favourite descending 2nd.
Of course this analysis doesn't even begin to convey the powerful effect of the original performance, and doesn't even mention the expressive and emotional aspects of the music - partly because I find them in some ways even more mysterious and hard to define than the notes themselves.
What is the mood of this piece? It's a sad song for sure, and Billie's voice always has a hint of melancholy about it, even when she's singing a happy, uptempo tune, but it's more than that. For me there's also that air of what I can only describe as defiant resignation, which is so characteristic of the blues.Yes, things are bad, Billie seems to be saying, my man's left me and I'll never be the same, but listen to how beautiful I can make it all sound.