Annie Ross album of Billie Holiday songs has air of swansong

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 December, 2014, 11:19pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 February, 2015, 12:43pm

Annie Ross says her new album, To Lady With Love, was recorded in just five hours. However, the emotional preparation for it has taken the greater part of a lifetime.

Ross - an actress and singer best known for her vocalese recordings in the 1950s and 1960s as a soloist and with Lambert, Hendricks & Ross - was just 15 years old when she first heard Billie Holiday on record, singing Strange Fruit.

"It made my blood run cold," she says in the spoken introduction with which the album begins. "She became my idol, my mentor, my friend. She remained my favourite until the very end. Your voice was always in my head, its message clear and true."

Ross is now 84 years old and although she still appears every Tuesday at the Metropolitan Room in New York, this album has the air of a swansong project. In the final track, Music is Forever, co-written with Russ Freeman, she name-checks a long list of gone-but-not-forgotten jazz greats, all of them known to her personally to varying degrees. Among them are Kenny Clarke, who fathered her son, Kenny Jnr, and Duke Ellington, who introduced her to Holiday.

Between the self-penned bookends of To Lady With Love are 10 songs, all recorded by Holiday, for the most part late in her career when the ravages of a life lived hard had taken their toll on her voice. Seven are from the last album released in Holiday's lifetime, 1958's Lady in Satin - a set which owes its generally high critical reputation to the naked emotion of her performances and the "truth" Ross refers to rather than the technical merits of her singing.

Ross has had her share of fraught relationships and hard times, including a spell of heroin addiction, and clearly identifies not just with the lyrics of these wistful torch songs, but with the extra depth of feeling Holiday put into them.

In addition to the Lady in Satin selections - For All We Know, I'm a Fool to Want You, Violets for Your Furs, You Don't Know What Love is, You've Changed, I Get Along Without You Very Well and It's Easy to Remember - she has chosen I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You, When Your Love Has Gone and Travelin' Light.

The arrangements for one voice and two guitars serve the songs well, showing them in a different, more intimate light to those for a 40-piece orchestra on Lady in Satin.

Ross originally envisaged recording the songs with just one guitarist: Bucky Pizzarelli, a near contemporary at 88. But Pizzarelli mentioned the session to his son and fellow guitarist, John, and he asked if he too could take part.

Ross is revered in jazz circles for the youthful virtuosity which allowed her to sing fast bebop lines - such as those on her classic 1952 vocalese version of Wardell Gray's Twisted, for which she also wrote the lyrics - while still articulating the words clearly.

Her voice is different now, and she seems happiest singing at slower tempos, but Pizzarelli says time has added depth to her interpretative skills. "It's a unique style that she's got now and I'm so lucky to be a part of this session with my son John. It's the most exciting thing that ever happened to me," he says.

Ross was more than happy to get the father-and-son team. "It was wonderful working with Bucky and John … you don't have to say 'Do this do that'," she says. "They instinctively know and they always do it with taste."

Pizzarelli senior plays most of the chords, while John contributes effective and sympathetic solos. The three were arranged close together in a triangle facing each other in the studio, and their interaction had a conversational quality.

"We were accompanying her, and I would look at John and he would play a solo, and I'd play the accompaniment to that. It was no guessing game. We were right with her. It just worked out beautifully and we finished the whole record in one day," Pizzarelli says.

John found his father's playing and Ross' singing deeply affecting. "It was thrilling just to be with the two of them in a room. She lived those songs when she sang them - that was what was so exciting."

"It was done with a whole lot of love," says Ross. "I hope - I think - Lady would have liked it."

Take Three

Three classic albums featuring the voice of Annie Ross.

  • King Pleasure Sings/Annie Ross Sings (1954, Prestige): a collection of classic early vocalese, mostly featuring King Pleasure but including Ross' original version of Twisted, and three other outstanding tracks from her in Farmer's Market, The Time Was Right, and Annie's Lament.
  • Sings a Song with Mulligan (1959, World Pacific): Ross' first solo album after joining Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks found her on top form in the company of Gerry Mulligan, Art Farmer, Chet Baker and others.
  • The Swingers (1959, Pacific Jazz): you can't go far wrong with the Lambert, Hendricks & Ross albums, and a bonus here is the tenor sax of guest soloist Zoot Sims.