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Lush Life

In my recent dive into everything American mid-century, I’ve become obsessed with Billy Strayhorn’s masterwork. After playing it myself pretty much daily for months, I’m convinced that Lush Life is not a song. It’s a through-composed composition disguised as a song. Strayhorn tries to fool you, but I’m not buying.

The sheet music itself is a good example of what I’m talking about. In my copy, m. 29 is marked as the “Chorus”. OK, but if that’s the case, where the heck is the “Verse”? And when exactly does the chorus end and the verse repeat? It doesn’t. There’s only about 4 measures that are repeated in any way, and the whole crux of any song form is ABA repetition. This free-form is deceptive, though – as somehow Strayhorn makes you believe you’re hearing nothing out of the ordinary.

Songs have chordal harmony, too, don’t they? I mean, sure, I guess you can call that an A-flat13, but isn’t it really just a stacked whole-tone pentachord? In fact the piece’s entire harmonic language is like that – thick with 5ths and parallel motion, as if Ravel wrote a torch-song.

Over the last 6 months or so I’ve collected 10 different recordings of the tune – Ella Fitzgerald and Nat Cole and Sarah Vaughan and the famous Coltrane version, of course. I even found some fascinating recordings of Strayhorn performing it himself (including one where he attempts to sing), which I think are way more interesting. All the standard versions are pretty great, and different from each other, but all give us pretty straightforward renditions of the tune, especially Cole’s from 1952, or Sarah Vaughan’s sad and sexy version, with its sultry Montovani-like arrangement [iTunes Store link].

The best of these standard options is, hands-down, Ella Fitzgerald’s 1957 recording, with the great Oscar Peterson accompanying [iTunes Store link]. It’s smart and understated, and shows Ella, as always, in complete control of what she’s singing. She clearly understands every lyric, which in this tune is an accomplishment. The only thing I don’t care for in her version is her slight change in the melody at the very end. It takes me right out of it when I don’t get that creepy chromatic crawl up…

But I tend to be more interested in the slightly odder versions I’ve found, like Nancy Wilson’s spunky rendering from 1967 [iTunes Store link] – with a totally awesome arrangement that I will someday rip off mercilessly. I also found a fairly recent recording from Andy Bey [iTunes Store link] – which stretches out the tune to a mythic 8-minutes, in part with jazz combo interludes and transitions, but mostly with Bey singing the tune at a dead crawl. It’s not exactly how I think this piece should go, but Bey has a marvelous voice, and it’s hard to stop the track once it gets going. And there’s a gorgeous recording of the always-fabulous Marion McPartland [iTunes Store link], from her radio show, of course. It’s nothing earth-shattering, but she dives right into those thick harmonies with smooth argeggios, and I swear, her piano always seems to sound like warm marshmallows. I don’t know how she does it.

The sax recording I picked up to contrast the Coltrane (which is, y’know, spectacular) [iTunes Store link] is Joe Henderson’s completely solo version from 1992 [iTunes Store link]. Henderson was a beautiful and soulful player, but stripping the tune down to the vocal line seems to me a complete misunderstanding of the piece. The vocal is about 1/10th of the tune – most of the point of the piece for me is the chunky and thick, and often surprising harmonies underneath, of which the vocal line is hardly ever an actual chord tone. Henderson noodles around the tune of course, but one still loses the sense of the Strayhorn harmonies. Still, it’s a marvelous piece of performance work, and if I was a tenor sax player, I’d probably have a Joe Henderson shrine in my closet.

One of the gems of my Lush Life playlist is a recording of Strayhorn himself playing the tune with a fantastic groovy-shag carpet of an arrangement of ooh/ahh-ing chorus and what sounds like a double bass plucking away [iTunes Store link]. It’s weird, and confusing, and I love it. But I think my overall #1 is a bootleg of sorts you can hear streaming on NPR, of Strayhorn singing and accompanying himself, live in a club in 1964. It’s rough–what with out-of-tune piano and cocktail glasses tinkling and people chatting in the background–and he was a perfectly awful singer (anyone ever hear Cole Porter sing?), but who cares. This is the piece in its purist form, and his unsentimental and cheeky performance is totally engaging.

Keep going with this exercise – you’ll find a zillion recordings, including Queen Latifah singing it at the Grammys and various other places (not bad!). Of course, my favorite way to enjoy Lush Life is still to play it myself, pretending the air is thick with smoke and sticky with gin as I croon away. And nope, there’s no iTunes link for that version.

[Addendum, added 10-12-07]

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