100 years after the birth of seminal jazz icon Billie Holiday, comes a fitting tribute to Lady Day from contemporary R&B singer-songwriter Rebecca Ferguson. Undeniably the most memorable voice that has emerged from a Simon Cowell-created talent show, Ferguson has proven her remarkable musicality and undeniable vocal talent with two critically acclaimed original albums. Two years after her sophomore studio album Freedom, which firmly cemented her as a solo artist in her own right, Ferguson has returned with an unexpected covers album. Lady Sings The Blues is an expressive re-interpretation of much of Holiday’s iconic catalogue.
Initially hesitant to take on an album not only of other people’s songs, but of Billie Holiday’s songs, Ferguson fell in love with Holiday’s incredible story and wanted to put her own stamp on some of the most beautiful and recognisable songs of the 20th century. Opening with the lively Get Happy, Ferguson offers us a literal invitation to gather round to be enveloped by Ferguson’s soulful, distinctive voice. The horn- and key-heavy classic big band ensemble continues through much of the album. Ferguson leads us through the lived-in blues of Fine and Mellow, and the string-laced sophistication of Embraceable You until we arrive at early highlight That Ole Devil Called Love, awash with growling sensuality and knowing attitude.
Ferguson’s exceptional voice oscillates between impassioned growls, delicate candour (Blue Moon), lovesick melancholy (I’ll Never Smile Again) and hypnotic power (Summertime). But through it all, she reveals a gift for phrasing that is so perfectly expressive, which is surprising for a vocalist coming from a pop background.
God Bless The Child is an expected standout. The song’s impeccable composition lends itself to Ferguson’s capacity for confident rhythmic interpretation and fervent pleas, accompanied by soothing backing vocals. On Stormy Weather, she assuredly takes more liberty with the written melody, while induces goose bumps with that infamous descending phrase on the album’s title track.
Those who have criticised Ferguson for recording jazz standards that are already so familiar with a wide audience are disregarding the reality of the genre. It is a completely different art form to make an established song your own, a hallmark of both the classical and jazz genres, and a talent possessed by the likes of Billie Holiday herself, one of whose most well known hits was a song written by prolific composer George Gershwin, and coincidentally one of the most covered tracks of all time. Lady Sings The Blues is a project that has opened a door into a musical world that is perfectly suited to Ferguson’s voice, musicality and life experiences, and one that will hopefully influence her future endeavours in original music-making.