Billie Holiday - Lady in Satin

2009-02-03 16:48
 
Lady in Satin (Columbia, 1958)
 

By 1958 the voluptuous siren call embodied on Billie 'Lady Day' Holiday's vintage 1930s Verve Recordings was long gone. In its place is the ravaged, bittersweet rasp of a fading jazz singer struggling to survive a lifetime of broken hearts and a serious heroin habit. With Billie now sounding more like a 70-year-old about to say "goodbye cruel world" than a 40-something starlet trying to make a comeback, it's understandable that arranger Ray Ellis was initially less than charmed with her faltering timbre.

Yet despite her shaky pitch Billie manages to channel her junkie pride into some of the most naked blues ballads ever recorded. By paring Great American Songbook standards such as "You Don't Know What Love Is" and Hoagy Carmichael's "I Get Along Without You Very Well" down to their co-dependent core, she tears open torch song spaces few other jazz singers have ever dared to. This is love as a fickle distraction, love as deadly despair, love as unrequited resignation, and most tellingly of all, love as an all-consuming addiction. Unsurprisingly this was Billie's own personal favourite recording. It also proved her myth-making final will and testament.

While Ellis' lush arrangements initially seem designed to airbrush out Billie's vocal scars, the 'satin' strings actually end up accentuating her singular ability to swing low (really low) no matter how saccharine - or second rate - her accompaniment. When she stretches her syllables out into a slowly blistered blues sigh on a brutally submissive reading of Frank Sinatra's "I'm a Fool to Want You" you can almost hear her heart break as yet another abusive lover smacks her around.

Granted, there is a grim fascination about this album. Listening to her narcoleptic drawl on defiant depressionals like "You've Changed" and "Glad to be Unhappy" is about as mesmerising as watching a heroin addict shoot up. Thing is, without the fear and loathing fuelling Lady in Satin there would simply be no confessional divas like Nina Simone or Janis Joplin crying their hearts - or tearing their hair - out so unapologetically in the decades to come.
Is Billie Holiday's last will and testament the pinnacle of jazz balladry or merely a harrowing portrait of a junkie singer's dying days?

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Chris 2009/02/04 6:44 AM
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Absolutely agree. One of the greatest albums ever.
Mark Spyker 2009/02/04 7:31 AM
As is so often the case, your tracks don't even play, so how are we supposed to judge them!
David 2009/02/04 8:07 AM
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tracks playing fine for me....greta voice, great emotions, great album
Eric 2009/02/04 8:38 AM
The greatest artists of our time, have all suffered affliction. That's what comes out in their music, it's what we identify with. That's what makes them GREAT.
Jean 2009/02/04 3:45 PM
Mark Spyker, hi, if the tracks don't play, please update your WMP. They play fine on the various platforms we've tested and this issue has always been resolved with upgrades since we relaunched the site.
Tim 2009/02/05 8:14 AM
Have got the same problem as Mark. Can't get tracks to play, no matter what I do. IE says there's an error on the page. Disappointing!!
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