The vocalist Queen Esther, decked out in a diaphanous, fur-themed dress, made the ornate Robyn Newhouse Hall at the Community Music School of Springfield, seem even more elegant. Accompanied by pianist Jeremy Bacon, resplendent in a deep red, velvet jacket, the Queen Esther Duo performed the rare sides that Billie Holiday sang in the 1930s and 40s. Friday’s concert (February 5) was produced by Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares.
Queen Esther’s voice is round and supple. She would slowly roll into words or attack them with well-articulated emphasis. Her phrasing was right on and she expressed these songs of love and love lost with perfect period sentiment.
Over the course of two sets of music, Queen Esther established a wonderful rapport with the 80 intrepid souls who braved a morning snowstorm to hear her sing. A self-described “library nerd” who spent considerable time researching Holiday and her work, Queen Esther gave just the right amount of anecdote and context throughout the evening.
We learned that Holiday spent a good part of 1948 in prison (the same facility where Martha Stewart did time), and despite entreaties from the warden, refused to sing a note while incarcerated. Because of her conviction, she couldn’t work in New York nightclubs, so upon her release, and despite having been off the scene and rusty, Holiday sold out Carnegie Hall. Soon afterwards she premiered “Holiday on Broadway” and began each night with “Easy to Love.” Queen Esther delivered her version with sass and easy swing.
Describing “Some Other Spring” as Holiday’s favorite, Queen Esther gave us a thumbnail sketch of the song’s composer, Irene Kitchings, a brilliant, classically trained pianist and arranger who was leading bands of adult male professionals in Chicago at age 16! She put her own career on hold after marrying pianist Teddy Wilson, expanding his musical horizons and raising their family. Queen Esther’s raised eyebrows and comments about gender inequality were seconded by the assembled.
The duo closed the first set with “Big Stuff,” penned by a young Leonard Bernstein from the musical “Fancy Free.” It was a critical time in Bernstein’s budding career and he created controversy by using “Negro slang” in his lyrics. Bernstein wrote the song with Billie in mind, but lacking clout and cash could not afford to have her sing it in the original production. Queen Esther counted off the rhythm then had a brain freeze; she forgot the words. It was a moment of high, unscripted drama. Her witty repartee, spot on all night, was tested, until a smartphone-wielding member of the audience handed her the three opening words: “So you cry”. With the lyrics unlocked, Queen Esther sailed through the song. In that moment she won over audience members, many of who undoubtedly have had their own experiences with the vagaries of memory.
The role of accompanist requires special skills: blending the sound, leaving space, lack of ego. Pianist Jeremy Bacon acquitted himself beautifully. It was a nice touch to have Bacon begin each set with a solo piece, giving us a chance to see his spread wings.
Queen Esther came highly recommended by acclaimed dramaturg and good friend, Talvin Wilks, who helped develop her Billie Holiday project at Minton’s in New York last year. Thanks Talvin, good call.