Billie Holiday - Lady In Satin LP

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“Lady In Satin” (1958) is Billie’s penultimate album completed in her lifetime. Produced by Irving Townsend, and engineered by Fred Plaut, its sound is sensuous, rich and swelling with emotion – though much criticized by Lady’s fans who had grown to enjoy her recordings with deft jazz combos earlier in the decade.

The song material for “Lady in Satin” derived from the Great American Songbook, but was unlike the bulk of Holiday’s recordings. This time she came with the backdrop of full orchestral arrangements, something she’d not tried since her Decca years in the 1940’s when recording fidelity was yet to deliver the aching strings and solemn horn sections that cradle and warm Billie’s vocal delivery on “Satin”. She wanted to record in the contemporary manner of Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald on her famous Verve Songbook series. She succeeded and perhaps surpassed.

“Lady In Satin” consists of songs Holiday had never recorded before, including the transcendent “You’ve Changed” and “I’m A Fool To Want You”, with arrangements by bandleader Ray Ellis. Holiday had loved his “Ellis in Wonderland” album and specifically asked to work with him. Soloists on the album included Mel Davis, Urbie Green, and bebop trombone pioneer J.J. Johnson.

Critical reaction was mixed for many decades. Holiday’s voice had lost much of its upper range, but she still had that fantastic rhythmic phrasing. Embarrassingly, The Penguin Guide to Jazz gave the album a three-star rating of a possible four stars, expressing a basic reservation, describing it as “a voyeuristic look at a beaten woman.” Looking back, this can only be seen as cruel and misogynistic. Billie was out of her time, a soul misunderstood. Far too many contemporary critics now must live with their merciless words – perhaps spoken only because her self-destructive frustrated everyone – as is too often the path of genius.

Her true friend, trumpeter Buck Clayton, knew best, and greatly preferred the work of the later Holiday to that of the younger woman whom he had so often backed in the 1930s. Buck knew Lady’s day would come.