Friday, February 24, 2006

Black History Month: Lush Life

There's been some discussion online about who should or could be regarded as the "greatest American composer" with various blogs promoting their favored candidate. Setting aside the merits of bestowing such a title to just one individual there's a strong argument to be made that Billy Strayhorn is - and was - possibly the greatest composer that this culture has produced. His creative output is dense with inventiveness at so many levels. From his outstanding arranging sensibilities to the twists of his melodic ideas he brought some big ears to his craft and jazz history is much richer because of his efforts.

With Black History Month winding down at HurdAudio the celebration continues with ears applied to Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn from Joe Henderson recorded on September 3, 6 and 8, 1991 at the Van Gelder Studios of Englewood, New Jersey. These are arrangements of 10 Billy Strayhorn tunes (one co-composed with Duke Ellington) performed by various combinations of Joe Henderson on tenor saxophone, Wynton Marsalis on trumpet, Stephen Scott on piano, Christian McBride on bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums.

Originally part of Duke Ellington's Far East Suite, "Isfahan" was co-composed with Strayhorn following their 1963 tour of Iran. For this recording it is performed as a duet for tenor and bass. This track alone seems to beg for repeat listenings. It's performances like this one that keep my ear open for the tone and improvisational sensibilities of Joe Henderson. Compositionally, this is a great melodic line that gives Henderson plenty to work with.

"Johnny Come Lately" brings in the full quintet for this classic 1942 tune. The interplay between the trumpet, tenor and piano as they trade off on the melodic theme sets up a cool sound. This is a spirited, and disciplined take on a piece that would probably shine given a wide range of interpretive liberties. In some ways this interpretation is a little constrained despite the outstanding solos from Henderson, Marsalis and Scott. This one is polished to the point where I crave some rough edges to rough up the shine.

"Blood Count" is a late Strayhorn composition (written almost literally from his death bed" at the hospital in 1967) and one of his best. Here it's given a quartet treatment as Henderson takes the spotlight for this slow tempo number. Stephen Scott strings together some excellent chord voicings on the piano as Joe Henderson spins out an extended improvisation before relinquishing the focal point to reveal a brief gem of a solo from Scott. These guys make it sound easy.

The inspired rhythm section of McBride and Hutchinson lay down a steady groove as Henderson delivers a trio take on the 1941 composition "Rain Check." This is the track that stays with me for days after listening to this disc. This one has such a great hook and catchy chord changes that I'm surprised it doesn't get covered more often.

"Lotus Blossom" is the duet between Henderson and Scott that one craves after hearing them together on "Blood Count." Stephen Scott opens this one with a solo that teases at a slow stride at times for a good couple of minutes before Joe Henderson quietly enters with a melody that drapes over this intensely creative piano part. These two could record an entire disc together and my ears would be glued to it.

The full quintet returns for a piece with one of the greatest titles of all time: "A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing." I immediately notice the smooth tone of Marsalis on trumpet for this steady ballad. Normally my ears are camped out in the avant/free jazz side of things so I don't often rave about Wynton Marsalis. But that cat can play and I wouldn't want to live in a world without performances like this one.

"Take the 'A' Train" (first recorded in 1941) gets a 7-minute treatment as a duet for tenor and drums. Henderson rescues this composition from the realm of cliche that heaps of soul-less interpretations have consigned it to and turns this familiar tune into a launching pad for an energetic linear improvisation propelled by some simmering drums from Gregory Hutchinson. Hearing the triple-pianissimo melody bubbling out from under the drums to bring things back to the head is a particularly nice touch.

The trio of tenor, piano and bass take a turn at the 1949 blues tune "Drawing Room Blues." McBride works in some nice bass lines in this one that come through with great clarity in this setting. Particularly as he picks up the bow for an arco solo. The piano solo from Scott is worth checking out a few times.

The full quintet returns for a take on one of my personal favorite Strayhorn tunes: "Upper Manhattan Medical Group" composed in 1959. This is a traditionalist take on this tune and these players do it enormous justice. Though again, this one is over-polished and I find myself craving a more ambitious arrangement that takes a few more risks.

This listening experience closes out with a solo tenor rendition of "Lush Life" - a composition from 1948. The decision to vary the instrumentation from track to track is one of the great strengths of this release that keeps the sound fresh from start to finish. The one constant in all of these is that unmistakable sound of Joe Henderson on the tenor and stripping everything down to just that one element for this final track is a perfect coda. And "Lush Life" is exactly the right composition for solo horn. Henderson explores a beautiful tension between sustaining a lyrical line against some embellishments drawn from his outstanding vocabulary on this instrument.

No comments: