Billie Holiday: The Box
Billie Holiday: The Complete Verve Studio Master Takes (6 CD's Verve 000429102) is a really terrific set. It gathers her recordings for the various Verve labels (Clef, Norgran, and Verve), culled from singles and albums--in chronological form from 1952 to '59, by and large her last period of recording activity. The sound of the transfers is excellent, even the mono. (Actually, though the few stereo cuts sound better on an absolute basis, the mono are better mono than the stereo are stereo, and the stereo are at least very, very good. That said, many of the tracks from albums like Body and Soul and Songs For Distingue Lovers, which were recorded in stereo and mono form, are presented in mono, and there seems to be no logic to the choices.)
It's true that by the time of the last CD here, Billie's singing was mostly pretty poor from the technical standpoint (though I'd still have to say that the Columbia album, Lady in Satin is even worse). But there's very little that isn't worth hearing, and the soloists--including Charlie Shavers, Sweets Edison, Ben Webster, et al.--are all wonderful, and in the case of the aforementioned, right up there at the level of those from her Columbia years--speaking of which, though the Columbia (Vocalion and Brunswick, mostly) recordings of 1933 to '44 are among the most highly-regarded jazz records ever made, these are at an exalted, albeit somewhat lower, level. There are no embarrassments here, either artistically, interpretively, or yes, vocally as well.
Frankly, I find these generally superior to her Decca recordings, especially the later ones, where they mostly tried to relegate Billie to pop status (or should I perhaps say "Pops" status--a kind of female Armstrong). At least Norman Granz recognized her unique genius, and backed her with great jazz musicians and--this is a big one--blessed her with the great American songbook as her material. There is nothing less than excellent music to be found here.
I do harbor some reservations about the packaging, regarding which I'm of two minds: I love the big, chunky tin box, which is not only gorgeous, but is an attractive and effective way to store and protect the discs, but I hate what they've done inside, which is a long, longer, longest accordion of digipaks. It was fine for the Charlie Parker set of Verve masters, which was only three discs, but ridiculous for this, which is six.
Excellent discography and annotation are included, and for once they've taken it easy on the eye-straining overprinting of the text and the pictures. But the booklet and text are still too small for easy handling and reasonable readability. Furthermore, they've die-cut the first section of the accordion in such a way as to guarantee that it'll be defaced every time you grab it and try to open it. Oh, and the CD labels are fugly: they should've used reproductions of the original labels.
Those are relatively minor complaints, however. This is a box set that was sorely needed: the essential portion of Billie's recordings for the Verve labels, all gathered chronologically in a mostly beautiful package in superb sound.
My advice: run, don't walk.