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Reviewers: Tony Augarde [Editor], Steve Arloff, Nick Barnard, Pierre Giroux, Don Mather, James Poore, Glyn Pursglove, George Stacy, Bert Thompson, Sam Webster, Jonathan Woolf


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BILLY STRAYHORN

Lush Life

Retrospective RTS 4273

 

 

CD1

Kay Davis & Billy Strayhorn

1. Lush Life

Duke Ellington & His Orchestra

2. Take the “A” Train

3. After All

4. Something to Live For

5. Grievin’

6. Weely – A Portrait of Billy Strayhorn

Barney Bigard & His Orchestra

7. Lost in Two Flats

Rex Stewart & His Orchestra

8. Linger Awhile

Duke Ellington & His Orchestra

9. Just A-sittin’ and A-rockin’

10. Clementine

Johnny Hodges & His Orchestra

11. Passion Flower

Duke Ellington & His Orchestra

12. Raincheck

13. Chelsea Bridge

14. Johnny Come Lately

15. Balcony Serenade

Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn

16. Tonk

17. Drawing Room Blues

Duke Ellington & His Orchestra

18. Midriff

Johnny Hodges & His Orchestra

19. Violet Blue

Billy Strayhorn

20. Halfway to Dawn

21. Tail Spin

Johnny Hodges & His Orchestra

22. A Flower is a Lovesome Thing

23. Lotus Blossom

Nat King Cole

24. Lush Life

CD2

Billy Strayhorn & His Trio

1. C Jam Blues

2. Johnny Come Lately

3. In a Blue Summer Garden

4. Great Times

Johnny Hodges & the Ellington Men

5. Snibor

6. Satin Doll

Billy Strayhorn & His Septet

7. Cherry

8. Gone With the Wind

9. Rose Room

10. Watch Your Cue

Billy Strayhorn

11. Chelsea Bridge

12. Just A-sittin’ and A-rockin’

13. Strange Feeling

14. Something to Live For

15. Take the “A” Train

Johnny Hodges with Billy Strayhorn & His Orchestra

16. I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good

17. Don’t Get Around Much Any More

18. The Gal from Joe’s

19. Day Dream

20. Your Love Has Faded

As it happens, I recently reviewed a three-CD set of recordings by Billy Strayhorn called Out of the Shadows. Generous as it was, I expressed disappointment that it omitted extracts from some of Billy’s sessions that I considered important, such as his orchestra with Johnny Hodges. Fortuitously, this double CD contains some of the items that were lacking from the previous compilation. Of course, one couldn’t include all Strayhorn’s performances, but this selection seems to be slightly more representative.

My Feelings about Strayhorn and his music were mainly described in the preceding review, so I needn’t repeat them here. Like the previous collection, this album provides the opportunity to sample Stray’s piano-playing, arranging and composing, often away from the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

The album is sub-titled “A Centenary Tribute – his 44 Finest, 1939-1961”. It is the centenary of Billy’s birth on 29 November, 1915. As a teenager he was an ardent, self-taught student. He said “The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn”. In 1935 he wrote all the songs for a musical, Fantastic Rhythm, and in 1938 he met Duke Ellington who was mightily impressed by the young man. Their ensuing partnership produced some of the Ellington band’s most enduring music.

This compilation helps us understand better than the previous collection what Strayhorn’s particular qualities were. In general he seems to have preferred mellow, mid-tempo pieces rather than loud, brash compositions. Meditative pieces like Chelsea Bridge and Lush Life seem typical of him – more than Take the “A” Train, the Ellington band’s signature tune. He also composed some tunes specially for members of the Ellington Orchestra, such as Lost in Two Flats for clarinettist Barney Bigard. He also wrote pieces which seem tailor-made for the sweet alto sax of Johnny Hodges. Just listen to Hodges in A Flower is a Lovesome Thing and Lotus Blossom – two tracks from the sessions with Hodges and Strayhorn as co-leaders. Billy’s piano style is similarly gentle and modest – very decorative, with plenty of trills, but not assertive. These qualities are exemplified by the five tracks (CD2, tracks 11 to 15) of piano solos which Stray recorded with the Paris String Quartet.

One quibble: why has producer Ray Crick included a track by Nat King Cole? His version of Lush Life is taken at much too fast a tempo to catch all the depths of the profound lyrics and their astute word-play (“Where one relaxes on the axes of the wheel of life, To get the feel of life”). Kay Davis’s interpretation of the same song (accompanied at the piano by Billy), which opens this collection, had adequately tackled this intricate song. But that is a very minor point. Basically this is a fine selection of recordings by someone who has too often been in the background.

Tony Augarde
www.augardebooks.co.uk



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