When You’re Smiling

I’m not sure it’s possible for any record to be perfect, but there are definitely some that I couldn’t be improved in any way that I can imagine. I can think of a number of Jazz records that fall into that category, including this version of When You’re Smiling made in 1938. It features Billie Holliday and Lester Young along a number of other members of the Count Basie Orchestra (apart from the Count himself, who is replaced by Teddy Wilson on piano).

That this is a favourite record of mine is a bit of a paradox, because I don’t really like the song very much. However, in jazz the tune is just the starting point. In her early recording career, Billie Holliday wasn’t very well known so she was often given relatively unpromising songs to sing. She turned out to be brilliant at turning this base metal into gold and becamse the best singer of a bad song there has ever been.

It’s not just the way Billie Holliday’s voice floats ethereally across the beat as she takes outrageous liberties with both melody and rhythm. Nor is the way she manages to express everything there is about life and love and hearteache through the rather  banal lyrics, investing the song with a deep sense of tragic irony. Nor is it Lester Young’s superbly constructed tenor saxophone solo near the end, which one of the very greatest by one of the very greatest. Nor is it that lightly swinging rhythm section of Freddie Green, Walter Page and Jo Jones who push the whole thing along on gossamer wings, making most of their rivals sound like clodhoppers; the drummer Jones,for example, adds  punctuation in the form of accents to the poetry of Lester Young’s solo. All the component parts are magnificent, but the whole is even greater than their sum. It’s a timeless jazz masterpiece.

I don’t know why I haven’t posted this track before, but better late than never. I hope you can take 3 minutes to enjoy it!

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