Jazz meets showbiz: Diana Ross tells Phil Johnson about her latest homage to Billie Holiday

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The Independent Culture
'BILLIE Holiday's life was very different to mine,' says Diana Ross. 'Billie was coming from pain and tragedy; I'm coming from inspiration and love. You don't have to be in deep pain to sing jazz.'

It's true too. Dripping diamonds from her ears as she slinks down a staircase to the stage at the beginning of her new video, her body encased in a gold, floor-length, sequinned dress, impossibly long butterfly-wing lashes batting coyly at the audience, Ross looks as if she is in no pain at all.

The in-concert video and album, just released (with not one, but three titles: Diana Ross Live; Stolen Moments - The Lady Sings . . . Jazz and Blues) is Ross's homage to jazz. It's also a homage to Holiday, the greatest jazz singer, and inevitably, this being a Diana Ross album, it's something of a homage to Ross herself, who this year celebrates her anniversary of 30 years in show business.

'It's 30 years since the first hit record, anyway,' she says. By invoking the history of black music in such glitzy style, Ross is both bowing to the past and asserting her own claim to a place in the great tradition.

The album and video are recordings from a live show which Ross gave at New York's Ritz Theatre last December. Featuring a 17-piece big band including Ron Carter, Barry Harris, John Faddlo and Roy Hargrove, a repertoire of standards associated with Billie Holiday, whom Ross played in the 1972 movie Lady Sings the Blues, Ross says she conceived the project as an act of pure enjoyment.

She says: 'It was a labour of love and a stolen moment because it was something I decided to do on my own. I had worked really hard in the last year and I decided that I wasn't really going to tour or work, I was just going to be with the family. After being off the road for a month I started pulling my hair out and needed to do some singing. What I wanted was to do a tiny little show in a jazz club in New York with just a small audience. It wasn't to be publicised but it kind of developed a life of its own.

'The record companies got their noses into it and they wanted to film it, so that took it away from a small club and into a slightly larger room. Because it wasn't planned and we didn't have a lot of time, there's a lot of improvising and going from memory and I'm very pleasantly surprised at the reaction.'

The show is heavy with Holiday references. It opens and closes with Holiday's own composition 'Fine and Mellow'; the pianist Bobby Tucker, who accompanied Holiday, was called in to provide an intimate backing for a special tribute section; and Gil Askey, who arranged the music for Lady Sings the Blues, came out of retirement to write the charts and conduct the band.

Exactly what Ross's voice does with a jazz repertoire is difficult to gauge. Unlike Ella Fitzgerald or Betty Carter, Ross doesn't scat or make her voice perform tricks; unlike Holiday, she doesn't attempt to capture the timbre of a saxophone or trumpet. Instead she elongates selected syllables, implying a yearning note of vulnerability which is occasionally at odds with the icy control of her superstar image. In one supremely kitsch moment she moves among the rent-a- crowd audience, bestowing kisses and basking in a glow of adoration while her radio-miked voice remains perfectly poised. Despite the 20 years since the movie, Ross hasn't allowed her voice to deepen and sometimes it appears to strain for the sound of a vocal ingenue when what is needed is a more forceful character actress. The band swings throughout, however, and the show remains a remarkable piece of jazz meets showbiz, far better value on video than on record, where you can't see how entrancing a performer Ross is.

Asked about how jazz differs from her normal repertoire, Ross says: 'It's not something that's thought out as much as that; it's not the kind of music that you think about as you're doing it. Jazz is about a freer and more improvised approach and for me it's about relaxation and breathing, with a freedom in the music that's not allowed in popular music . . . These are songs but they are freer in the sense that they are played for feeling. The music comes from deeper feelings than more popular music, with more thought behind the words.'

She insists that the music is also about her own roots. 'Let me give you a little bit of history: I have a lot of background in gospel music and in jazz. Jazz and blues were part of my growing up and when you hear a lot of it, it becomes part of who you are, even if it's not the form you're singing in . . . After growing up with it, I started studying the older blues singers, the real old-time down-and-dirty singers like Bessie Smith, and I became a collector of those lyrics. It wasn't something I studied to be like, it was just for enjoyment and for thinking about . . .'

Ross has recorded standards and show-tunes before but they have rarely been released. 'The record companies' attention has always been on the more popular 'Chain Reaction' things and I can only give them what they want.' Of her own voice, and how it has changed since Lady Sings the Blues, she says: 'It's older] And wiser] I think I've mellowed a lot and now I have the choice of singing what I want to sing, whereas in the very early days there were so many people second-guessing what I should do. With my voice itself, I do feel that there's more maturity there and I don't mind singing sad, tragic songs - songs that have a message.

'I have really been very lucky with the care of my voice. In 30 years of singing and I don't know how many concerts, I haven't had any trouble with my vocal cords and I don't smoke or do all the bad things to the throat that you can do. Over the years my voice has gotten stronger.'

The strength and maturity of her voice and her confidence about material is evident on the album's most affecting track (not included on the video), 'Where Did We Go Wrong'. Added to the in-concert album at the request of EMI, it's a smoky jazz ballad of pain and loss that Ross co- wrote. 'I actually came up with the idea sitting in front of the television one night,' she says. 'I had been working on some other projects and was sitting making notes for songs and I put some thoughts on a tape and sent them to my friend Bill Wray, saying, 'Don't you dare let anyone hear these thoughts.' It was very personal. He took all these words and shuffled them around and sent them back to me. I'm very proud of it. I've written so few songs in my career and I've written only from my feelings.'

The song could herald a change of direction. 'My first intention is to begin writing my new album myself.' She also sees a return to the traditional song-form in pop music. 'The emphasis seems to be more on songs again these days, though there is still a whole generation of rap and hip- hop. But that kind of music we made in the Sixties and Seventies, I don't know if it can be done any more.'

'Diana Ross Live. Stolen Moments - The Lady Sings . . . Jazz and Blues' is available on EMI (all formats). The video is available from Picture Music International

(Photograph omitted)

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