For a novel, probing look at what is often considered the pathetic swan song of a great jazz singer, Ran Blake and Christine Correa, a piano-voice duo of uncommon mutual sympathy and daring, revisit Billie Holiday's "Lady in Satin," an LP the tortured diva made with strings in 1958.
It's an attempt to take a frankly oblique examination of material that, for most fans, deserved better than "Lady in Satin" in any fantasy vision they may have had of Lady Day growing gracefully into the late middle age she wasn't destined to have.
"When Soft Rains Fall" (Red Piano Records) contains a dozen songs associated with the singer in her decline and earlier, plus a solo piano version of Bernstein's "Big Stuff, " a vocal solo on Herbie Nichols' "Lady Sings the Blues," and Blake's composition to Correa's recitation of a Frank O'Hara poem, "The Day Lady Died."
The reigning question is: Can you make art out of a landmark of extreme vulnerability without seeming ghoulish? I think the answer is yes, to the extent that at the core of Billie Holiday's art is an ache of vulnerability that came through even when her voice was strongest, in the 1930s and '40s. So, when here phrases take on a questioning quality, even when fully supported, there is a sense that a breakdown is being bravely staved off. There's no hint of mockery, but of the most empathetic sort of tribute.
Correa is an inspired interpreter, with both rough-edged and stalwart aspects to her instrument. She can interrupt phrases boldly without suggesting that she is haphazardly piecing together a vocal mosaic. The separation of lines in "I'm a Fool to Want You" doesn't sound arbitrary, but instead serves as an indication that the difficulty of honest expression — of owning up to conflicted feelings — is being addressed in a triangulation of song, singer, and pianist.
In "You've Changed," there is both resignation and disheartened protest in a song that Holiday had interpreted truly but more sturdily much earlier. Correa's final reiteration of the song title is sustained through a kaleidoscope of vocal color; this is the kind of touch that stays with you, and isn't shadowed by artificiality.
In Hoagy Carmichael's "I Get Along Without You Very Well," Blake sets out on his own at first, with left-hand rumblings of fragile self-assurance and the pedal liberally applied. This gives the irony of the lyrics full play, and his accompaniment continues its soft plodding under the stiff-upper-lip pep talk of Correa's singing.
There is perhaps rather banal poetry in the bridge of "For All We Know" as it lays out its philosophy — "For all we know this may only be a dream. / We come and go like the ripples of a stream" — but those lines are emblematic of the entire program. What Blake and Correa have done on "When Soft Rains Fall" is recount the recurrent dream of Billie Holiday's art the way it came through as a tragic finale. And they do it evoking the transient but memorable feelings that accompany the experience of watching those ripples on a stream, even when the former purity of that stream must be recalled with effort and imagination.