WBGO Radar

Molly Johnson: "Because Of Billie"

singer Molly Johnson

Canadian vocalist Molly Johnson is treasured by all who are familiar with her. She's sure to gain more accolades with her sixth studio album, Because Of Billie, a glowing tribute to Billie Holiday.

For Molly, it may be her most personal offering to date.

"For years, people have said to me, you are so much like Billie Holiday," she says. "My response has been, no, I am because of Billie.

"Billie and her generation were the civil rights movement. She sacrificed for my privilege. I wanted this record to infuse her spirit while pushing forward."

"Body And Soul" makes a strong opening statement toward that goal. With the trio of pianist Robi Botos, bassist Mike Downes and drummer Terry Clarke, Johnson surrenders herself body and soul on this medium tempo honor to Lady.

"What A Little Moonlight Can Do" shows just what a lot of Molly Johnson can do, enriched by the trio's spirit on this Harry Woods classic.

By the time we get to Billie Holiday's "Fine And Mellow" we can hear this tribute is  being treated with utmost respect and passion. With the addition of solos from John Johnson's tenor sax and trumpeter Bryden Baird, it's a soulful bluesy number Lady would like. Anyone want to drink and gamble?

The horns get an additional feel from clarinetist Colleen Allen on "Them There Eyes" as Johnson and bandmates give this one a second line New Orleans feel. It works - Crescent City with that dangerous look in dem dere eyes!

Molly Johnson's expression in a ballad setting thrilled some of us on her previous recordings like "Lucky" and "Another Day". With her plaintive version of "You've Changed", Molly demonstrates this lady feels Billie on this or any other day.

There's a churchy declaration to Molly's interpretation of "God Bless The Child". The privilege Molly spoke of comes full to the front, with some nice alto sax from Colleen Allen.

"Strange Fruit" would present a difficult emotion for any singer, trying to come close to Billie Holiday's original. Here, Molly delivers the powerful lyric with space for the listener to take full impression of the story.

On "Lady Sings The Blues" Johnson's voice floats above the energized pace of the trio.

Duke Ellington's "Do Nothing 'Til You Hear From Me" depicts a late night closer, with Johnson's emphatic appeal a bluesy encounter with Downes' bass lines.

Billie Holiday was the  First Lady of the haunting refrain. Molly Johnson's own styling fits perfectly on "You Go To My Head". Listen as you feel your temperature rise.

It's a swinging version of "They Can't Take That Away From Me" as the trio takes nothing away from Johnson on this Gershwin goody.

You can hear the full band and Molly had a grand swingin' time on "Now Or Never", a full tilt boogie to get off the dime.

The closer, "Don't Explain", seals the feel to want to see this lady perform That Lady live. Your chance comes April 10 & 11 when Molly Johnson appears in the Rose Theater at Jazz At Lincoln Center, celebrating the release of "Because Of Billie" on April 7th.

   - Gary Walker, WBGO music director

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