Few American composers — in any category of music — were on a par with William Thomas Strayhorn. His ability to weave the intricate and sophisticated harmonies of classical music into the richness and swing of big-band jazz was unparalleled. (Just check out the nimble chordal movement in a tune like "Chelsea Bridge.") He excelled at composing melodies and writing lyrics with wit and poetry, as in his signature tune "Lush Life."
"With all respect to Cole Porter and Rogers and Hart and Jerome Kern, I love them all, they're great geniuses," singer/pianist Andy Bey said. "But Billy Strayhorn was a different kind of a genius because he was in the background."
When the 51-year-old Strayhorn died in 1967 after battling cancer, he was well on his way to the recognition he deserved. Certainly, Duke Ellington — with whom he had remained, off and on, for most of Strayhorn's 30-year career — emphasized his contributions to the Ellington orchestra in stage announcements, on LP covers, and on a posthumous tribute album to his friend and songwriting partner: And His Mother Called Him Bill.
To know Strayhorn's full story, check out the new television documentary Lush Life, airing as part of PBS's Independent Lens series, or read David Hajdu's biography of the same name. For those looking to hear his music, the titles listed below represent a good start.
Billy Strayhorn, Passion Flower
Easily the best CD overview of the diminutive maestro's oeuvre, this collection features 21 tracks — mostly performances by the Ellington band of such classics as "Lotus Blossom," "Rain Check," "Take the A Train" and "Satin Doll." Also included: Nat "King" Cole's version of "Lush Life" — the public debut of the song from 1949, with Pete Rugolo's impressionistic arrangement — and drummer Louie Bellson's take on "Johnny Come Lately," with Strayhorn himself on piano.
Duke Ellington, Three Suites
"Danse of the Floreadores"
By the early '50s, miffed at the lack of credit he had received under Ellington's wing, Strayhorn departed for a few years to freelance his talents and try his hand at writing a Broadway show. Upon his return in 1957, Ellington spent the next 10 years making up for past slights: granting Strayhorn co-credit on their collaborations and lending him headline status on various projects, including the suites collected on this CD. Of special note: their oh-so-hip reworkings of tunes from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, like "Sugar Rum Cherry" (from "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy") and "Danse of the Floreadores" ("Waltz of the Flowers").
Various Artists, Lush Life
Not surprisingly, the Strayhorn tributes that are currently available outnumber the composer's recordings of his own music. He created music intended for wide interpretation, and it shows; a tune like "Lush Life" has been convincingly performed as a swinging celebration or as moody self-reflection. The takes on this collection feature stellar soloists from the current Blue Note jazz roster, including saxophonist Joe Lovano, vocalist Dianne Reeves, and pianists Bill Charlap and Hank Jones. The four-handed workout "Tonk," performed by Charlap and Jones, is a revelation, while Lovano's "Chelsea Bridge" and "Johnny Come Lately" are flavorful and fun.