It seems nearly miraculous to find newly unearthed material from someone as rigorously documented as Billie Holiday. Billie Holiday: In Rehearsal does not only that, it also delivers her in great voice, with incomparable sidemen (who are likewise in top form), singing only prime standards.
To this magnificent starting point, add session banter which includes a funny argument with a two-year-old (Billie tells her, "You're not gonna sing."), a Sophie Tucker impersonation that turns into a version of "My Yiddisher Mama," directives from Lady Day herself, plus an interview. The sound is, for the most part, nearly studio quality. The album provides fascinating clues as to how Holiday heard time; her suggestion as to tempo (and phrasing) for "Prelude to a Kiss" is right on the money. Throughout the program, her intonation is wonderful, her way with lyrics insightful, and her time, as always, incomparable. The esteem in which she's held by her soloists is evident in tune after tune.
If what Sweets Edison plays behind her on "East of the Sun" isn't love, it'll have to do until the real thing comes along. It's love that's reciprocated too; her re-entries after each solo are clearly responses to what she's heard. This is a musician operating a remarkable level of awareness. Billie's not perfect, and her limitations only serve to accentuate her musicality. She can't hit the high notes on "Easy to Love," so she seamlessly paraphrases. There's not a hint of self-consciousness. She takes chances occasionally. "Blue Moon" may have been over-recorded, and Billie seems disinclined to leave the second eight bars alone. She reconfigures the melody even more radically after the instrumental solos, leaving only the second half of the bridge untouched. It may be the kind of thing that kept the tune off a record at that time, but it's a pleasure hear it now. Her "I Only Have Eyes For You" is as good as any released version she'd made of the tune, and "You Turned the Tables on Me," better. It's always good to hear something that reminds us of an artist's greatness, and exciting to be introduced to unfamiliar material. "In Rehearsal" does both.