I've always had mixed feelings about Billie Holiday's Lady in Satin. I love the February 1958 recording, but I have to be in a certain mood to hear it. Billie is in the twilight of her career, and while her voice isn't quite as shattered as it would be on her final studio recording in March 1959, her voice is already frayed and fragile. While Ray Ellis' arrangements are lushly embracing, I've found them a bit too rich and syrupy in places. What's more, some of the song choices were off considering the state of Billie's voice. Songs for me that weren't quite right include Glad to be Unhappy, I'll be Around (Billie can barely get the words out), I Get Along Without You Very Well and Violets for Your Furs (which starts rather abruptly, without the important intro). [Photo of Billie Holiday and Ray Ellis by Arnold Newman]
Fortunately, there are many more hits than misses on Lady in Satin, including breathtaking renditions of For Heaven's Sake, You Don't Know What Love Is and I'm a Fool to Want You. More important, there are four stunners that solidify the album's classic status: You've Changed, It's Easy to Remember, But Beautiful and The End of a Love Affair, which I believe is the date's intimate high point.
I spent the day yesterday listening repeatedly to the four stunners. Then I spoke with harpist Janet Putnam Soyer and cellist David Soyer, both of whom played on the February session nearly 51 years ago.
First, a few words about husband and wife Janet and David [pictured]. Janet was one of the most in-demand studio harpists of the 1950s, recording on albums ranging from Frank Sinatra's Songs for Swingin' Lovers to Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain (I'll have a longer interview with Janet in the coming weeks). David, of course, is one of the country's foremost cellists and was a member of the famed Guarneri Quartet. That's his magnificent cello accompanying Billie throughout on I'm a Fool to Want You.
Says Janet about Lady in Satin:
"Ray rehearsed the band before Billie arrived. When Billie came in, she wasn't in great shape. She was sort of creeping in. She looked at all the guys she knew in the orchestra and seemed embarrassed that she was in the condition she was in. She was crying but happy to see everyone. It was a sad session, as I recall. Ray Ellis was a good writer. His harp parts were accessible, meaning they fell into my hands nicely. On this date, Ray was particularly fond of glissandi [the sound you hear when both hands run across the harp's strings in a circular motion for an uplifting effect]. Billie was in terrible shape on the days we recorded but she sounded great. I don't know how she did it." [Photo of Billie Holiday and Ray Ellis at the Lady in Satin session by Don Hunstein]
"Billie was a wreck when she came in. She had just come out of prison or rehab. She was so nervous when Ray introduced her that the orchestra applauded to put her at ease. I remember she didn't want the guys in the band to hear the playbacks because she didn't think she sounded good. But we all went into the booth after to hear them anyway. She sounded pretty damn good to me. Ray [Ellis], as always, was fine and easy going." [Photo: Chenz/Dalle]
What makes You've Changed, It's Easy to Remember, But Beautiful and The End of a Love Affair so special is that the lyrics suited Billie's autumnal voice perfectly. Ellis' arrangements on each song manage to be both melancholy and spirited, at once supporting and saluting Billie's jazz and pop significance.
You've Changed gives Billie a chance to let loose, and she does so with enormous warmth and power. Backed at the start by Urbie Green's trombone, Billie delivers the lyrics with resigned and firm conviction. Ellis' use of strings, woodwinds and a choir is magnificent. Pay particular attention to Milt Hinton's heartbeat bass line, Ellis' use of shimmering strings and Janet's rich harp work. [Photo: Don Hunstein]
On It's Easy to Remember, a tremendous song choice, Ellis places flutes on top of the choir and strings, which lift higher and higher to accentuate Billie's vocal. All are anchored by Danny Bank's bass clarinet. The high point here is trombonist Urbie Green's warm, tender solo.
But Beautiful has the same splendid feel, even though Billie struggles a bit at the outset. Soon enough she slides into place on what is perhaps the album's most florid and graceful arrangement. Mel Davis' open trumpet solo always seems to come out of nowhere before punctuating the song, and the string arrangement feels like the rhythm of water at the beach running up onto the sand and then back out.
Billie admitted on-mike that she didn't know The End of a Love Affair, and she needed multiple retakes. Finally, Ellis decided to record the orchestra alone, with Billie adding her vocal later using a headset. The arrangement is so powerful and so perfectly matched to Billie's voice that the package breaks your heart. And again, dig Janet on the harp glissandi and how she firmly snaps off chords and notes.
Lady in Satin is a jazz classic. The beauty of the album is that each time you hear it, the recording excels for different reasons. Yesterday, thanks to Janet and David, I experienced for the first time Ellis' arrangements through the harp, cello and strings.
JazzWax tracks: Lady in Satin was last re-issued in 1997 along with alternate takes, including several for The End of a Love Affair. If you want to hear just how good Billie was even at this late date, put on track No. 15, where you hear Billie singing The End of a Love Affair without accompaniment (in reality, she's singing while listening to the orchestration through a headset).
To enjoy this album and appreciate Ellis' arrangements, try segmenting what you hear. In other words, focus just on the strings during one listen or Milt Hinton's bass on the next. Or listen carefully to David's passionate cello work behind Billie on I'm a Fool to Want You.
Best of all, be sure to try what I did yesterday: training your ear on Janet's harp. Listen carefully, and you'll hear her in the thrush of the strings or cascading down or up with glissandi depending on the mood Ellis wanted to telegraph. I've never really listened to an album by isolating the harp, but doing so here is a kick. Once your ear grows accustomed to Janet's delicate sound, you realize that the instrument's angelic whispers have everything to do with Billie and the success of Lady in Satin as a work of art.
PS: David's last name was misspelled on the 1997 re-issue. It's Soyer, not Sawyer.
JazzWax clip: Here's Billie singing on track No. 15. After the false start, she asks Mal Waldron, her pianist, to play as loud as possible because she doesn't know the song. This is followed by Billie singing without accompaniment (she's hearing the orchestration in a booth through a headset). It's positively haunting...