April 30, 2015
Guest: Mark Arax
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: California going back to the drawing board to deal with their drought.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The governor ordering the strictest crackdown on water use in the state's history.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: The cut doesn't apply to the state's agriculture industry, and that's controversial.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: It's called almond shaming. Apparently it takes one gallon of water to produce one almond.
GROSS: California's drought and water crisis is creating a water war as corporate farms and orchards, small farmers, suburbs, cities and new real estate developments compete for water. My guest, Mark Arax, is writing a book about the water war. He covered the Central Valley for the LA Times and is the author of the books "West Of The West" and "The King Of California." His grandfather was an Armenian immigrant who became a farmer in California's San Joaquin Valley. Arax's father gave up farming and eventually opened a nightclub in Fresno, where he was murdered in 1972. Mark Arax spent years investigating the murder and whether it was tied to the drug trade. He wrote a 1996 memoir about his father's murder, but some of his questions weren't answered until years later. We'll talk about the murder after we talk about water.
Mark Arax, welcome to FRESH AIR. So the drought is bringing California water controversies to the forefront. And it's not just, like, a weather event - the drought; it's the politics of water that's behind some of California's problems now, who gets the water and how much they get it. Can you just give us an overview of how water flows through California?
MARK ARAX: It flows through California through these two bulwarks. They're two of the grandest hydraulic engineering feats really known to man. One is the Central Valley Project. The other is the State Water Project. And no state in the union - really no nation in the world, for that matter - has ever attempted projects of this magnitude - at least when they were attempted. One was built in the '30s and '40s. The other was built in the '50s and '60s. And, you know, only California was a land whose magnitude could imagine such things. And the whole idea was it was kind of beautiful hubris from the very beginning. It was this idea that California - you know, 900-miles long, encompassing alpine rain forests, below sea level desert, Savannah Valley, coast - that we were going to even out all that disparity, that we were going to move the rain. And we were going to give our lesser lands a chance to be everything they could be. So the Central Valley Project basically takes - well, both projects take the rivers of the north, where there's an abundance of rainfall; and they move those rivers by the force of dams connected to aqueducts and canals. And those canals are then connected to ditches. And those ditches run onto farmland. And then they come through the spouts of cities. And it's this system that if you looked at it from above, it would be like a latticework, but really more like the veins of a body just moving this lifeblood along. And it defies gravity. We pump enough to make our rivers run backwards. So these projects became imbued with, you know, the force of nature itself. And the size became both, you know, its ambition and, as it turns out, its inherent flaw.
GROSS: So, you know, a lot of us who don't live in California think, well, people better stop watering those lawns. But there's much bigger uses of water that are really sapping a lot of the water reserves. And that leads us to some of, like, the corporate agriculture in this state. I didn't realize how controversial nuts were until I started reading about the water crisis. And tell us a little bit about why nuts are actually players in the California drought.
ARAX: Well, as these tribes - I call them tribes - the tribes of the north of California, the middle of California and the south of California start arguing, they start reducing it to kind of ridiculous little symbols. And it used to be the farmers against the Delta smelt fish. And now it's the urbanite against the almond. And you have to look at it from the standpoint of the almond grower. Many almond growers used to grow cotton. And cotton is a crop that can be grown anywhere in the United States. And it's a crop that uses a good deal more water than the almond does. And so they evolve and decided that we were going to plant nuts. Nuts can only be grown really in California. It's a high-value crop. And they've planted the hell out of them. I mean, right in the midst of drought here - I drive up and down the Valley, and they're planting tens of thousands of more acres of almonds and pistachios. So the almond has become - I mean, this is all about whose draw of water is more righteous than the other. And so the almond farmer got thrown under the bus pretty quickly. And it is true that the almond uses about 10 percent of the developed water in California. There are a million acres of nuts now. This has gone up, you know, threefold in a very short period of time. So the almond farmer's going to tell you that I'm using my ground for something that's very profitable. It's a very efficient deliverer of protein. And if you look at it that way, it has a much better water footprint than beef or soybeans or certainly alfalfa. So this is what's happening. It's almost a zero-sum game. And everybody has to now argue its commodity and why its draw of water, you know, is maybe not sustainable but justifiable.
GROSS: Well, an issue I think you come across with the - for instance, almond trees - is that, like, if you plant crops and there's a season when your fields are going to be fallow because there's not enough water, that's a season or maybe two seasons. But with the almond trees, and I guess with other nuts as well, unless they're watered regularly whenever they need it, the tree's going to die. And it takes trees, like, a really long time to replenish. So they - it's like all or nothing, I guess.
ARAX: Yep. When you plant trees, they are considered a permanent crop. They have a lifespan of about 20 to 25 years, certainly not as permanent as the suburbs we're planting but permanent. And in a time of drought, you don't have the flexibility to move those in and out and fallow them. So you're locked into a certain water equation with trees. So that's the downside in drought.
GROSS: You write in one of your articles that farmers, hedge fund managers and investors from India and China are growing more than the one million acres of almonds and pistachios in the California nut rush. And I thought, really, hedge fund managers and investors from India and China?
ARAX: Yeah, it takes a lot of investment to convert from a row crop to almonds and pistachios, about eight to 10 thousand dollars an acre. And the banks here sometimes aren't so willing to lend that money. So these farmers go looking afar, sometimes all the way to India, to find investment. And they partner up with these investment firms. And it's always been that way. When my grandfather came here in 1920 and became a raisin farmer - growing Thompson Seedless grapes and then drying them in the sun, blistering them into raisins - a lot of the farmers in the area were farming land that investors in LA and San Francisco actually owned. So that's a - it's kind of a long tradition here.
GROSS: You interviewed some families for one of your articles. And their wells had run dry when nut farmers moved in and started drilling deep for water 'cause the - I guess the deeper you drill, the more of the area's water you get.
ARAX: Yeah, I had a chance to tell the story that kind of brought together these two narratives. The one narrative is a kind of story that had never been told. And that was the story of the Black Okies, as I call them. These are African-Americans who, during that Great Migration, decided not to go to the big industrial cities and decided, coming west, not to go to Los Angeles or San Francisco or Oakland. They really cared about the rural lifestyle. And they wanted to, you know, maintain that rural kind of ethic. And so they migrated from the rural South and Southwest to rural California, the middle of California. And they kind of followed the cotton trail west. And they came at a time when the cotton picker was just starting. And in some cases, they picked right alongside these early, clunky cotton-picking machines. And in 10 years' time, they were idled. And they lived in these little alkali spots - salty spots of the valley - locked out of the cities by racism. And there I found them half a century later. And the kids had gone on, but the old timers had stayed. And they had created something. They had rebuilt their shacks. I mean, these were shacks that looked like they'd been lifted out of the Mississippi Delta, 1930s. And some still lived in the shacks. Others built and rebuilt houses. And they watched as this farming got closer and closer. And in this community of Fairmead, one of the African-American settlements out here in California, these big almonds guys, looking for more land, more profit, started coming right across the street. And the one family that I profiled, the wife was literally looking outside across the street at this new almond orchard going in. And the farmer was testing his pump that day. And the pump was probably a thousand feet deep into the ground. And their little pump that was pumping the water for their house and five acres probably reached 250 feet into the ground. And as soon as he tested that well, everything went dry in the house - the kitchen sink, the bathroom, the toilet - all, alas, burble. And it's been dry ever since - a year. And now they're hauling water and setting up these kinds of contraptions, not unlike the contraptions they had set up a half a century ago when they first came.
GROSS: So can you explain why the family's water just stopped so suddenly when the large farm started drilling?
ARAX: The almond farmers were drilling wells close to a thousand feet deep. So the very day that this one big almond farmer was testing his wells, drawing down the water, creating this - what they call a cone of depression - it took the water from all the peripheral lands and drew it onto his farmland. And that's when this one family that I featured, that is the very moment their water went dry. It started in the kitchen sink, and it went everywhere.
GROSS: Is there anything illegal about that?
ARAX: There's nothing illegal about it. You know, it's just the way it happens out here. You know, after the piece, I mean, the farmers felt guilty about it. And every week or two, they drop off bottled water to some of these families. But this little town - you know, these folks are now faced with this question, you know, what are we going to do with the rest of our lives? Are we going to stay here, this place that's sustained us for all these decades? Or are we going to leave? And that was the question that was asked, you know, at church that day I went. You know, the reverend up there saying, this is an act of God. You know, paradise is burning. Nature is having its way, and only a whisper in God's ear can change it. And the people saying, wait a second, Reverend. You know, this has a lot more to do with greed than what you're, you know - a lot more to do with man than nature.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Mark Arax, and he's writing a book about California's water wars. He has also written about water for the LA Times. He's the author of the book "West Of The West" and formerly covered California's Central Valley for the LA Times. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're talking about California's water wars in the light of this drought. And the water wars are the subject of a forthcoming book by my guest, Mark Arax. He's a journalist who has written for the LA Times, where he covered California's Central Valley. He's also the author of the book "West Of The West."
One of the families you profiled are - own big corporate farms. It's the Resnicks that I'm talking about. And they're best known for the Cutie clementine seedless tangerines, for growing pomegranates and for owning POM Wonderful. They're behind Fiji Water, the bottled water known as Fiji Water. They grow a lot of pistachios, which are highly advertised now. How much land do they control in California, and how much water do they use?
ARAX: The Resnicks, through Paramount Farms - their Paramount Farms - they control about 120,000 acres of farmland. This is the second - you know, they're the second-biggest farmers in the state by acreage. They're growing very high-dollar crops.
GROSS: How did they make their fortune that enabled them to buy up so much California farmland?
ARAX: Stewart Resnick - it's the story of a Jewish kid in New Jersey whose father ran a bar himself and ended up pretty much squandering all the family money. And so Stewart came west to go to UCLA law school. And by the time he was in his second year of law school, he was already a millionaire. He was cleaning up businesses. And then, he turned that cleaning-up business into alarms and security for these buildings in LA. So he was a millionaire in - at UCLA.
GROSS: So he made a lot of money from the alarm business.
ARAX: Yes. And then he took that money. And then, he ended up buying The Franklin Mint and doing wonderful things with The Franklin Mint, the Princess Di outfit, you know, all those wonderful little...
GROSS: Commemorative plates and things like that.
ARAX: Yes, that's what they did. And then, he decided in the '80s that he needed a hedge for, you know, all his millions. And he took a bet on farmland. And it was a great bet. He bought a lot of land in Kern County from the oil companies for cheap and then decided to do this kind of agriculture in a way that - in a precision - I mean, his operation - I mean, they're excellent farmers. You know, he's probably worth a couple billion dollars today. I mean, he's not a farmer. He says, I'm a carpetbagger. You know, his house in Beverly Hills, it's a hundred miles from those fields in Lost Hills. Farming has been very good to Stewart Resnick, even though I don't think he's got any dirt under his fingernails.
GROSS: So one of the agricultural investments that the Resnicks made was in pomegranates. And they also own the juice company POM Wonderful, pomegranate juice. Did they create the demand for pomegranates, or was there a pre-existing demand for pomegranate juice?
ARAX: Pomegranates have always been grown here. There's a wonderful Saroyan short story about his uncle planting these godforsaken pomegranates on godforsaken land. And they never sold. So there have always been pomegranates here. They've sold, you know, out of here and there to specialty markets and ethnic groups. But what Resnick did was he ended up buying this land that had some pomegranates on it and saying, you know, let's make some juice out of it and then doubling that acreage and doubling it again - you know, somewhere around 10,000 acres maybe a pomegranate. That's huge, huge. That may be a little off. But really made a big bet on pomegranates - they marketed the heck out of it. But now they're pulling out some pomegranate orchards because, you know, the demand isn't there. So we're seeing pomegranates now go into nuts.
GROSS: And there's a lot of demand for nuts. I mean, almond milk is huge now.
ARAX: The almond is not only a great source of protein; it's turned into almond milk, almond butter. The hulls of almonds are being used to feed cattle. So you're seeing a lot of secondary use for the almond as well. And so you're seeing this nut rush. And if you drive the valley here, all these acres in the middle of drought, the almond trees are growing. The pistachio trees are growing. And they're able to do that largely through the State Water Project, one of those two water projects I was describing at the beginning. They were also able to buy from the state. The state had invested $30 million in an underground water bank. And through a very controversial kind of backroom meeting more than a decade ago, they were able - actually two decades ago - they were able to seize control of this water bank. And it allows them to store water during abundant snowmelt flood time and then draw on that water during drought. So if you go to a little place in the middle of California called Lost Hills, you will find what is essentially a company town, the Resnick company town. And there are, you know, fields after fields of almonds and pistachios and processing plants and things like that. That is - that's kind of the Resnick empire.
GROSS: My guest is Mark Arax, who's writing a book about the California water wars. After a short break, we'll talk more about water. And we'll talk about his investigation into his father's murder. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Mark Arax. We're talking about the California drought and California's water wars. Arax is writing a book on the subject. He used to cover California's Central Valley for the LA Times. When we left off, he was telling us how the Resnick family's farming empire in California acquired a controlling interest in the Kern Water Bank in the San Joaquin Valley.
So the water bank, which is basically a huge underground lake for storing water so that it can be used in dry times, that was something that was created as a public storage facility, right?
GROSS: But so how is it possible for that - a work of that magnitude to be acquired as part of a private enterprise?
ARAX: Well, that's the subject of a lawsuit. You know, the state has its hands full running the State Water Project, and so it had initially invested in this thing and just couldn't bring it to fruition. And so Resnick, his lawyers and others stepped in and decided to buy it. And it's a pretty smart investment, looking back.
You know, this is why this place is such a paradox, why here we are in the middle of drought, and you're seeing the planting of all these acres. And the newspaper accounts are saying this is the California dustbowl, but you have to drive a long way to find dust. There's just an awful lot of planting still going on. And the shortfall from the rain and the snow is being made up by groundwater. And farmers are pumping the heck out of the groundwater. And the land is sinking, first in inches and now in feet.
GROSS: So the water bank wasn't completed at the time that the Resnick's company acquired it?
ARAX: That's right. It wasn't completed. And they ended up completing it, spending, you know, a lot of money, a lot more than the state had initially invested. And then through a couple water companies, they have, you know, control of that water bank. They don't own it all, but they own a controlling interest in it.
GROSS: So is the question that's being put before the court - is it a question of whether water intended for public use can then be diverted into a private underground storage facility?
ARAX: Yeah, it's that and a few other issues. But right, it's the whole notion of, really, who owns the water? And through these kinds of projects and buying early interests in canal companies, you have farmers here who, in some cases, control or own 15 percent of a river's flow.
GROSS: Am I right in saying that Central California has more water to draw on than the rest of California?
ARAX: Yeah. The middle of California is a land rich with rivers, OK? And it's also a land that long, long time ago, was ocean. It was an inland sea. And so a lot of that water percolated down and, you know, down deep into the - you know, there's a deep, deep aquifer here. And that aquifer is what farmers have long drawn on to to grow their crops. Their water was then supplemented by surface water, as it's called from the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project. But when those two projects are dry, like they are now, the farmer then returns to deep, deep into the earth to pump out his groundwater.
And this water, if you were to do, you know, like, a carbon testing or something on it, it would go back thousands and thousands of years in some cases. And as it's being pumped out, the land is sinking. And that's because the aquifer is starting to collapse. It's very - all those layers and layers that have water in them - as that water's being sucked out, the land, then, is collapsing on itself.
And you know, as much as this state is regulated and as cutting edge as we are in terms of environmental laws and everything else, we have never regulated the groundwater in California, and we're just starting to now. No one knows how many wells have been stuck into the ground, how many pumps are pumping out water. There's - they have no idea. The counties aren't required to really even keep that information.
GROSS: Are these aquifer's supplies of water being depleted?
ARAX: Yeah, they're being drawn down. And in some cases, there's an overdraft and water that was on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, for instance, or on the east side, water that was two, 300 feet deep, 400, 500 feet deep, is now 1,700, 1,800 feet deep the wells are into the ground. So now, the notion is that when flood comes, those will replenish. But it takes years and years and decades and decades of floods to replenish that kind of overdraft. So we're, you know, we're sinking.
GROSS: Another of the battles going on for water now in California is between farmland and development. And more of the Central Valley, which has traditionally been the farmland - the biggest farmland in California - more of that area is getting developed by real estate developers. Tell us a little bit about that war that's going on.
ARAX: Well, for a century, you know, the rivers of the middle of California certainly have been rivers of agriculture, and now, slowly, quietly, they're becoming rivers of suburbia. And the farmer who's farming, his children don't want to go into farming. He decides he's going to sell the land out. And so this, to me, is the big question. Is the middle of California going to end up looking like Southern California or Northern California?
We have here a kind of soil and sunshine and a proximity to the great Sierras that - I mean, if God intended a place to be something, he probably intended this place, the middle of California, to be farmland. But that sprawl has come up and over the mountain from Los Angeles, and it's starting to eat up some of the best farmland here in the San Joaquin Valley.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Mark Arax. And he's writing a book about California's water wars. He's also the author of the book "West Of The West," and he formerly covered California's Central Valley for the LA Times. Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. In fact, what we're going to talk about when we come back isn't water. It's a murder mystery, and it's the mystery of Mark Arax's father's murder. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Arax and he's writing a book about California's water wars. He's also the author of the book, "West Of The West." He's a former correspondent for The Los Angeles Times. He's also the author of a memoir about his father's murder. In 1972, his father bled to death after being shot five times in the restaurant and bar that he owned. And Mark Arax...
ARAX: It was really - excuse me - it was really kind of, at that point, it evolved into a nightclub. And I'll tell you a little bit about that evolution if you want. But go ahead. I just wanted to...
GROSS: Sure, I just wanted to mention that you were 15 and your father was 40 when he was killed in 1972. Yeah, so describe what that bar was - or, nightclub?
ARAX: Well, my dad was a farmer. You know, my grandfather came here, he was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide as a farmer and that farming got passed on to my father. And then that farming evolved into grocery stores. And then one day, my dad came home and said he'd bought a restaurant. And it was a restaurant - I mean, there was a kitchen in the back. But he quickly got rid of the kitchen, and this place evolved into the hottest nightclub between Los Angeles and San Francisco. And - but it was - it was rough. And it became a place where a lot of farmers who were having hard times started smuggling drugs from Mexico - flying drugs from Mexico into the fields of California, the middle of California, and using their crop dusters to fly these loads. And then they would come into my dad's nightclub. And my dad was pretty disturbed by this traffic, and he started making some noise about it. And one day in - you know, January 2, 1972, he went to work. I was going to actually go with him but I was in the shower and it was kind of a foggy, cold night. He said, stay home, I'll be back in a half an hour. Two men came in to an empty bar and shot and killed him.
GROSS: And you assumed that that was payback for your father's objections to the drug trade that was coming into the territory and also coming into his nightclub.
ARAX: That was at the assumption. It was even the assumption that the police operated on. But the police department was very corrupt back then. And it was kind of involved in protecting some of the narcotics smuggling. So there were all these questions that, you know, kind of shaped and redirected my youth. I started carrying a tape recorder and tape recording the stories of family. I wasn't sure what I was doing, but I guess I was trying to fill that void left by my father.
GROSS: My impression is you also became something of a detective, investigating what really happened because you didn't have a satisfactory answer.
ARAX: No. It was an unsolved murder. And I spent probably 15, 20 years just contemplating writing it and then another five, six years writing it. And in the end, I solved the riddle of my father, you know. Because when you go that way and you have the kind of business he had, there's a lot of rumors in town that maybe he was part of that trafficking. And - but he was also my baseball and football coach, you know, he was a star athlete who got a football scholarship to USC. And so I was trying to solve the riddle of my father. And then I solved the riddle of who we were and where we came from because - how did he land in the bar? You know, for my grandfather, my father leaving the farm and going into the business he went into, I mean, that to him was the first step in that tragedy. And so it was a puzzling out of family, of father, of place. But I never really put the gun in anyone's hands. I had a lot of theories. But the book did end up solving the murder in a very weird way. Twenty-five, 30 years later, one of the gunmen - well, one of the people who had driven one of the gunmen to the nightclub that night - had read the book, had these pangs of guilt and came forward after he got in trouble and talked about, you know, these two gunmen from Detroit that he had picked up in Los Angeles and drove to Fresno to my father's nightclub. So 30 years later, we sat in a courtroom. And one of the gunmen had died. He had killed himself jumping off an 11-story building. And the other one, who happened to be the son of a police officer in Detroit, a heroin addict in the '70s, was found guilty of my father's murder.
GROSS: What about motive? Did you find that out?
ARAX: That was the question. I mean, the prosecutor worked on the theory that it was a robbery gone bad. But in the epilogue to "West Of The West," I tell this story of how crazy that sounds, that two gunmen would be - would come from Detroit and find my father's nightclub in Fresno and then, you know, get involved in this shooting and end up ditching the car in the California Aqueduct. So, you know, it's a mystery. It's - all the questions I answered, you know, in a way you have to love the questions themselves because that ultimate answer is elusive. Now, I hear from this gunman. He's in one of the California prisons I used to cover as a journalist. He writes every so often and says, you know, I will tell you the truth of that night. But he wants me to drop about $2,500 into his prisoner account. So anyhow, I haven't gone to see him.
GROSS: OK, so are you not doing that on principle or because you would distrust the information because you paid for it?
ARAX: Yeah, I don't think I could believe the guy. I mean, what's he going to tell me? Either that it was a robbery or he was there as a hired gunman because my father was about to reveal the connection between law enforcement and these drug cartels in Fresno. I don't know if you could believe him. So I've just kind of kept away from that. I mean, it's occupied so much of my life. It's taken me in so many different directions that at some point, to get on with life and other stories, you know, I had to drop it.
GROSS: You met the woman who gave the gunmen the gun. Do I have that right?
ARAX: That's right.
GROSS: Because the police gave you a tip that - and this was after your book was published about the murder. So you got a tip from the police that she was there. You went to see her. How do you approach the woman who supplied the gun that killed your father? I mean, where exactly do you start the conversation?
ARAX: You know, it's that dance that Joan Didion and Janet Malcom talked about where, you know, you're on the phone, you're trying to do a two-step and get someone to agree to see you, to open up. It just so happened that this woman was involved in my father's murder. And so - and her involvement was also added to the mystery. She happened to be someone who lived in Fresno and was part of these drug cartels. And yet the story she wanted me to believe is that these two guys came out of Detroit to work for the drug cartels, not to kill my father and that she simply had sent them there with the instruction that there's a lot of money in that bar, especially after New Year's night, and if you're looking for some money that might be a good place to go. That's as far as she wanted to go with me. But I walked into her little house by the river there and as she was telling me the story, you know, it was very difficult. I mean, it was - you know, I was there as the son but I was also there as the writer. And there was that constant tension. And at some point, as she was lying to me, you know, I could feel that anger bubble up. But anyhow, it was the most difficult encounter I've ever had where, you know, you want to react in a very visceral way. But you're there to extract something, to get something.
GROSS: Did you get anything from her?
ARAX: Yeah, I got an apology. A strange one, but I got one. And I got a lot of little clues along the way. I was surreptitiously recording that conversation. And as I played it back, oh, I played it back so many times just listening for a change in tone or some clue. And, you know, you're just - in the end you're left with that ultimate question as to the question of why. You know, answered who my father was, I answered what this town was. I even answered, you know, who killed him. But that question of why is something that, you know, will always tug at me.
GROSS: Mark Arax is writing a book on California's water wars. His memoir about his father, which was published in 1996, is called "In My Father's Name." This month marked the centennial of Billie Holiday's birth. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews albums paying tribute to her by singers Jose James and Cassandra Wilson. That's after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. In honor of Billie Holiday's centennial, which was April 7, several artists have released Holiday tribute albums. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead looks at a couple of these by other singers. One he rather likes, the other not so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD MORNING HEARTACHE")
JOSE JAMES: (Singing) Morning heartache, here we go again. Morning heartache, you're the one who knew me when. Might as well get used to you hanging around, morning heartache.
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Jose James on one of Billie Holiday's signature songs from his tribute album, "Yesterday I Had The Blues." James takes a bunch of songs associated with Holiday and does a good job of infusing them with her spirit. The way he tinkers with a song's phrasing to invest the lyric with meaning is right out of Holiday's playbook.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVER MAN")
JAMES: (Singing) Someday we'll meet, and you'll dry all my tears and whisper sweet little things in my ears again. And the kissing, Lord, what I've been missing. Lover, where can you be?
WHITEHEAD: Jose James's previous albums have been rhythm and blues-ish, but he'd grown up hearing Billie Holiday since he was a toddler. She's as deep an influence as an artist can have, and he honors her gift for understatement. About the only time he sounds at a loss is dealing with those archaic oh, oh, oh's on "What A Little Moonlight Can Do."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT A LITTLE MOONLIGHT CAN DO")
JAMES: (Singing) Oh, what a little moonlight can do. Oh, what a little moonlight can do to you. You're in love. Your hearts fluttered all day long. You only stutter 'cause your poor tongue will not utter the words, I love you. What a little moonlight can do.
WHITEHEAD: Jose James backed by a crack (ph) trio who get their own space but don't try to steal the show - pianist Jason Moran, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Eric Harland. Sometimes I wish for a horn player to mix it up with the singer once or twice, but better too little than too much. The ringer track is James's overdubbed a cappella "Strange Fruit," that harrowing tale of a lynching that Holiday made famous and made her own. James's take sounds like a chain gang from that musically tidy alternate universe in the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")
JAMES: (Singing) Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
WHITEHEAD: If any song should be stamped property of Billie Holiday and retired, this is it. There have been other dubious versions lately. I'm looking at you, Annie Lennox and violins. Cassandra Wilson does "Strange Fruit" on her new Holiday tribute album, "Coming Forth By Day." Wilson's version piles up strings, electronic loops and a bunch of guitars headed for this top-heavy climax.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")
CASSANDRA WILSON: (Singing) Here is a strange and bitter crop.
WHITEHEAD: When it came time to mix that, did no one think to say maybe it's a little too much? That ending is about the only time on "Coming Forth By Day" that Cassandra Wilson raises her voice. Mostly she's in low-key whisper mode, competing with lavish, spare-no-expense arrangements. The string charts are by pop mastermind Van Dyke Parks, apparently having an off week.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT")
WILSON: (Singing) Lovely, lovely never ever change. Keep that breathless charm. Won't you please arrange it? For I love you just the way you look tonight.
WHITEHEAD: Like Billie Holiday, Cassandra Wilson sounded buoyant on her early records and got more subdued later, and that's OK. She's already been recording longer than Holiday, and lots of artists change things up to stay fresh. Some Billie Holiday records use strings to target pop listeners, and that's OK too. But Holiday never let the orchestrations upstage her. Cassandra Wilson is a great singer. Why hide her behind bells and whistles?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD MORNING HEARTACHE")
WILSON: (Singing) Might as well get used to you hanging around. Good morning, heartache, sit down.
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed Billie Holiday tribute albums by Jose James and Cassandra Wilson. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, including this week's interview with Louis CK, check out our podcast, which you can get on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.