Years ago Lady in Satin was my introduction to Billie Holiday, and the experience set me off her music for an extended period of time. But something about it kept whispering from the folds of my memory, and as my experience with Lady Day’s music (as well as jazz in general) grew over the years, so has my appreciation for Lady in Satin, Holliday’s haunting swan song. It’s not really jazz at all—it’s Billie’s instantly recognizable growl wrapped in the “satin” of almost unbearably saccharine string arrangements—but somehow, it transforms into musical magic. This last time around, as my boyfriend listened to it for the first time with tears in his eyes, I finally realized the greatness of Lady in Satin: in twelve quick tracks Lady Day channels all of the pain, joy and paralyzing heartbreak of her difficult life into what should be light, bouncy love songs, transforming them into brief vignettes of tragedy and desperation. The emotions of this album—overwhelming, even suffocating—makes what I think is one of the great vocal performances ever recorded.
My return to Lady in Satin came in response to my acquisition of Diana Ross’s Blue, the supposedly long-lost album of recordings for Lady Sings the Blues. Taking on a number of classics Lady Day made famous, Ross does herself proud with her switch from Motown to jazz, and what they lack in sheer musical and emotional weight they make up for in sheer buoyancy and a sense of fun and freshness. It’s saying a lot that I actually prefer her version of “I Loves You Porgy” to my goddess Nina Simone, who I consider supreme of all musicians. The hype is definitely true: this is a genuine treasure to emerge from the vaults.