Though she did record one subsequent, posthumously released album, 1958’s Lady in Satin has long been considered Billie Holiday’s exit music. Its musical worth remains heatedly debated, one camp insisting it ranks among her best work, another decrying Holiday’s extreme vocal decay. Love it or lament it, there’s no denying its raw intensity, the synthesis of so much accumulated wisdom and pain.
Annie Ross has, at age 84, reached her Lady in Satin curtain. The once mighty playmate of Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks (with plenty of superb recordings of her own) is now a shadow of her former highflying self. The voice that definitively knotted “Twisted” and scaled the boppish heights of “A Night in Tunisia” has been reduced to a whispered croak, remarkably close in timbre to the late-career Elaine Stritch. And yet, like Stritch, there’s a hard-earned nobility in her tremulous sound, vestige of a life lived fast, furiously and well.
How fitting, then, that what could well be Ross’ farewell recording pays tribute to Holiday. The first track of To Lady With Love is a spoken introduction. “I heard her first on record,” Ross muses. “I was 15 years old. The song she sang was ‘Strange Fruit.’ It made my blood run cold. She became my idol, my mentor and my friend. She remained my favorite until the very end. Your voice was always in my head, its message clear and true.”
Holiday recorded Lady in Satin with full orchestra. Ross wisely reduces her accompaniment to just guitars, courtesy of Bucky and John Pizzarelli. The entire set was completed in one four-and-a-half-hour session with Ross, as she’d subsequently discover, in the incubatory stages of pneumonia. The Pizzarellis, eminent pros that they are, keep the backing eider-soft, respectful of Ross’ vocal fragility and clearly intent on training the spotlight solely on her.
Satin‘s 12 tracks deal almost exclusively with heartache, winding from “I’m a Fool to Want You” to “The End of a Love Affair.” Even the tenderly romantic “Violets for Your Furs” suggests a misty reverie of faded romance. Ross also focuses squarely on heartache. Indeed, six of the 10 Holiday-related tracks she covers are lifted from Satin‘s playlist. Interpretatively, though, their approach is subtly yet significantly different. Holiday’s readings felt bruised, even battered. Ross’ are equally tear-splattered but more reflective. They are the anthems of a survivor, not
Only once does Ross stray from the Holiday songbook, closing with “Music Is Forever,” a paean to gone-by giants of jazz she crafted with the late Russ Freeman and previously recorded as the title track of a 1996 album. Little more than a roll call of revered greats-Bird, Bud, Miles, Chet, Prez, Sassy, Ella, Trane, Basie, Duke, Diz and others, the name Lambert surprisingly absent-it is rather insipid, though in a sweetly innocuous, deeply heartfelt way.
Accompanying the CD is a DVD with 14 minutes of interviews. In the first half, Ross recalls her early days in New York and one of her first bookings, at the Apollo, where the terrified neophyte was chosen as a last-minute replacement for Holiday. Ross was, she adds, introduced to Holiday that same night by Duke Ellington, and a friendship ignited that lasted until the iconic singer died. It is a charming vignette, lovingly told, that gracefully hints at the passing of the torch from an outsized jazz legend to a budding one. Ross and the Pizzarellis then speak separately about the album, with John capturing its power and worth in just four words: “She lived these songs.”