Various Artists: The New Blue, Pixie Williams Reimagined (digital outlets)

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Various Artists: The New Blue, Pixie Williams Reimagined (digital outlets)
Later 21-year old producer Stan Dallas would recall, “We actually didn't say it, but I think everybody realised we were making history”.

That was when in, October 1948, the Ruru Karaitiana Quintette with 19-year old singer Pixie Williams recorded the achingly beautiful lament Blue Smoke.

Released the following year when families still mourned the loss of young men during the war, the song's melancholy lyrics – which don't specifically mention the war – and weeping lap-steel guitar spoke directly to people's hearts.

Blue Smokemarked the birth of the local recording industry because it was the first song to be written by a New Zealander (Karaitiana), performed by New Zealand artists, recorded here and released on a local record label T.A.N.Z.A (To Assist New Zealand Artists).

Ironically, Dallas also said, “I don't think any money changed hands. People would just do it.”

And another local tradition was established, as many young bands more than 70 years later will attest as they call in favours.

Subsequently Karaitiana continued to write but drifted in and out playing between other work, and steel guitar player Jim Carter, at 95, played the song again with Neil Finn for the Anzac Day commemorations in 2015.

Williams – who didn't think of music as a career – recorded again (songs by Karaitiana and Sam Freedman's romantic Maoriland) but in 1952 met and married John “Paddy” Costello in Dunedin and dedicated herself to family life.

A decade ago Williams' small body of work – 13 songs restored from the original shellac 78rpm records – was presented on CD as For the Record: The Pixie Williams Collection 1949-1951.

The prime mover behind the well-annotated project was Williams' daughter Amelia Costello who has also steered the tribute album The New Blue: Pixie Williams Reimagined which hassingers Whirimako Black, Anna Coddington, Louis Baker and others reinventing the charmingly romantic and nostalgic moods of the 11 songs.

The singers and arrangers are respectful, but not wedded to replication, as on Black's torch ballad treatment of Karaitiana's Ain't It A Shame and Rachel Fraser's coquettishly swinging Bell Bird Serenade.

And on Blue Smoke, technology allows Williams' original recording to be alongside Lisa Tomlins (who co-produced the album with Riki Gooch of Trinity Roots) and Kirsten Te Rito – both singing in te reo – in a gentle dance-band setting.

Maoriland in te reo by Te Rito is sublimely sentimental.

Williams died in 2013, age 85, and six years later she, Karaitiana (who died in 1970) and Carter were inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame.

After Baker's Windy City which closes The New Blue we hear a snippet of Pixie Williams: “When you have music in your heart, it stays with you,” she says.

“Music will always live on.”


The New Blue: Pixie Williams Reimagined is available now on Spotify here.

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