Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life is the companion soundtrack to the film that aired as part of the PBS series Independent Lens. Filmmaker Robert Levi created the biography to draw attention to Strayhorn whose association with Duke Ellington has long overshadowed his talents and contributions. The album complements the film’s intention.
The album opens with “Fantastic Rhythm,” a solo piano number played by Bill Charlap, who also performs solo on “Valse.” That famous Ellington swing is evident from jump street and epitomizes the song’s title. This track alone makes the case that Strayhorn was an instrumental architect in the creation of the Ellington sound. “Satin Doll” was co-written with Ellington and the lyrics are by Johnny Mercer. It is another solo piano number, although this time performed by Hank Jones. The two combine for a piano duet on “Tonk.”
“Rain Check” is one of many songs played by the quartet of tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, pianist Hank Jones, bassist George Mraz, and drummer Paul Motian on the album. Jones, Lovano, Mraz all get to take the reigns and lead. They also play “Johnny Come Lately,” “Chelsea Bridge,” and “Lotus Blossom.” The latter of which, Ellington claimed was the song Strayhorn most liked to hear him play.
“Lush Life” finds acclaimed singer Diane Reeves wonderfully accompanied by Russell Malone on guitar. On her five other songs, she is backed by a quartet. Drummer Greg Hutchinson and bassist Ruben Rogers are her rhythm section throughout. Peter Martin plays guitar on four tracks and is replaced by Rodney Jones on “Day Dream.”
Accompanied by Lovano and Charlap, Elvis Costello contributes “My Flame Burns Blue,” which appeared on his 2006 album of the same name. The song is a combination of “Blood Count,” Strayhorn’s last composition, which was written in 1967 from his hospital bed, and new lyrics by Costello.
Even though Ellington co-wrote four tracks, the album does a great job in highlighting the talents of Strayhorn. While I enjoyed all the songs and their performances I would have been curious to hear them played by a modern big band.
Videos of “Satin Doll,” “My Flame Burns Blue,” and “Lotus Blossom” can be seen online.