Friday, March 23, 2007

Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life

Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life
Original Soundtrack
Blue Note Records

When PBS finally gave some primetime air to jazz, they did the music right. Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life, which aired in most markets in February, profiled the man who served as Duke Ellington’s largely unheralded arranging and composing collaborator. The filmmakers understood the importance of Strayhorn’s music to their story, and gave extended screen time to performances of his tunes by some of top names in jazz today. While giving prominence to the music, they did cut off most performances at some point, so the Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life companion soundtrack is a welcome release, making the entire performances available.

Few musicians are as attuned to songwriters as Bill Charlap, so he is perfectly matched to this project. The disk opens with his jaunty solo version of Strayhorn’s little known “Fantastic Rhythm.” He later returns for another solo—a sensitive interpretation of Strayhorn’s classical composition “Valse.” Charlap also has the pleasure of playing a duet with Hank Jones on “Tonk,” originally a four-handed feature for Ellington and Strayhorn.

The personification of elegant swing, Jones is another natural for this endeavor. His solo feature, “Satin Doll,” is tasteful and sophisticated. Jones has developed a rapport with Joe Lovano, playing with him on a number of occasions and on several sessions in recent years. With stellar rhythm section-mates George Mraz and Paul Motian, Jones and Lovano keep that good thing going on tunes like “Johnny Come Lately” and particularly Strayhorn’s lovely, under-recorded “Lotus Blossom.”

The vocal tracks are a bit more of a mixed bag. Certainly one of the highlights is Elvis Costello’s “My Flame Burns Blue” (originally “Blount Count”). Costello, Mr. Diana Krall, has been doing more jazz oriented work, recording with the Metropole Orchestra and frequently performing for Jazz Foundation benefit concerts. The lyrics he wrote to the melody of “Blood Count,” first recorded with the Metropole and heard here with the stellar backing of Lovano and Charlap, well fit the milieu of Strayhorn’s work.

With six features, Diane Reeves has the highest profile in the film and soundtrack. She has a beautifully strong and clear voice, but on “Lush Life” she does not seem to connect with melancholy at the core of the Strayhorn classic. However, on “Something to Live For” she brings a convincingly hopefully sound to what could be a downbeat lament.

Lush Life has been sitting atop the Jazz Week radio play charts for several weeks, and it is easy to understand why. It features a nice blend of the well known Strayhorn and relatively recent discoveries, while the performances range from solid to beautiful.