Aug 13, 2009
Imagine a nightclub in New York fifty years ago, where Billie Holiday, sadly past her prime at the age of 44, is performing in what will become her last public concert. The award-wining Hartford Stage Company in Hartford, Connecticut is bringing us just that, mounting a production of Reenie Upchurch's play "Yesterdays - An Evening with Billie Holiday". Jazz singer Vanessa Rubin is cast in the title lead role, backed by a jazz trio of Levi Barcourt (piano), Bernard Davis (vocalist/drums), and David Jackson (bass).
Born and raised in Cleveland, Miss Rubin's first public brush with Billie Holiday's oeuvre came while competing in the Miss Black Central Ohio Contest. She received a standing ovation for her performance of “God Bless the Child”, which convinced her that her true calling was to sing in the jazz tradition. From her early dates with Pharoah Sanders and Barry Harris to her headlining performances, she has shown herself to be a singer of great depth and variety.
By taking on the challenging role of Lady Day herself in the "Yesterdays - An Evening with Billie Holiday", Ms. Rubin also shows she has acting chops. She is called upon to play a foul-mouthed, slowly burning out singer, and to tell stories of her upbringing, loves and musical influences, while sprinkling in a steady stream of Holiday classics. Dressed in a long, white halter dress with the trademark gardenia in her hair, Miss Rubin succeeds admirably in bringing the legend to life, using her talents not to mimic Billie Holiday, but rather to bring across her spirit, through the turn of a phrase, the trill of a note, or a subtle turn of the head while clutching the microphone. She nails "Strange Fruit" near the show's close, wringing angst and sorrow from every note.
I got the chance to speak with Miss Rubin about the challenges of the role and other aspects of the show this week, so please enjoy the interview as this week's Podcast. I celebrate Vanessa Rubin and the cast of "Yesterdays" and Billie Holiday with songs performed in the show and other tunes, including:
Billie Holiday - "Deep Song" from The Complete Commodore Recordings. Since Billie's cataloge from Decca and Columbia get the most attention, many singers (including Ms. Rubin) were unfamiliar with her version of this plaintive ballad.
Kenny Burrell -"Raincheck" from Pieces Of Blue And The Blues. Bassist David Jackson from the Hartford Stage production anchors the rhythmn section for this live session with drummer Kenny Washington. Burrell joins two other guitarists, Rodney Jones and Bobby Broom for a three-headed monster.
Vanessa Rubin - "I Only Have Eyes for You" from Pastiche. Vanessa has recorded several songs that Billie Holiday recorded, although noen of the tunes Lady Day was best known for, including this standard. This bass heavy version includes Tarik Shah on bass, Aaron Walker on drums, Aaron Graves on piano and a horn section that includes Steve Turre on trombone and Cecil Bridgewater on trumpet.
Vanessa Rubin - "Our Love Is Here To Stay" from Vanessa Rubin Sings. The Gershwins' classic gets a romping rendition backed by an all-star group, including Robert Hurst on bass, Marvin "Smitty" Smith on drums, Kevin Eubanks on guitar and Turre on trombone and conch shell.
Vanessa Rubin - "But Not for Me" from Girl Talk. Two fun-filled duets with the late Etta Jones were highlights of this 2001 Telarc release. These were the last sessions Ms. Jones would record before succumbing to cancer, and Vanessa points out in our interview that few singers captured the quality of Billie Holiday's voice as well as Miss Jones did. Cedar Walton is on piano, Steve Davis on trombone, Javon Jackson on saxophone, David Williams on bass and Lewish Nash on drums.
Billie Holiday - "Gimme a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer)" from The Complete Decca Recordings. One of the highlights of the Hartford Stage production comes when Vanesa as Billie tells the story of her devotion for Bessie Smith and her frustrating encounter with the blues legend in a nightclub early in her career. A rousing finale to the podcast.