Stan Getz: Blood Count (1982 studio version)

Billy Strayhorn wrote it; Duke Ellington recorded it; but make no mistake—Stan Getz owned this song. In the 1980s, Getz performed it at almost every concert, and if the acoustics were right, he would turn off the mikes and render it un-amplified. I lost count of how many times I heard him play it, but I know that, without fail, this song left the listeners mesmerized by its poignancy.

I even performed it with Stan, and matched my piano part to what McNeely plays on this track—since Getz's approach to this song was not about improvisation. Instead, playing this composition again and again, he seemed to be seeking a quasi-ritualistic revisiting of some primal experience. On this studio version, as in concert, he never departs far from the written melody. Getz's whole attitude—not just to music, but to life—was about improvisation, yet I never once heard him take a real solo over these changes. He might briefly allow his horn to stray from Strayhorn's line, for a fill or ornamentation, but would always come back to it. I think he would have considered an extended solo on this piece some sort of sacrilege. Instead, I sensed him reaching for what Kierkegaard talks about with his metaphysical concept of Repetition, a return to the same that is the antithesis of sameness.

This had been Strayhorn's final composition, written shortly before his death from esophageal cancer. This exquisitely crafted piece is one of the composer's most multilayered efforts, its power rising from the tension between the surface elegance and the submerged anguish of the music. Getz's interpretation took on added poignancy as his own health started failing during the course of the decade. One couldn't help hearing Stan confronting his own mortality as he returned to this piece night after night.

What a testimony to the focus musicality of this artist, that he could channel so much of his own inner life into a mere melody statement—and not even a melody he had written—and communicate it to every member of the audience. If you haven't heard it, you need to. Check out either this studio version, or the later live performance in Copenhagen. Against the backdrop of a career chock full of memorable tracks, both classic and commercial, Getz delivered one here for the ages.

August 05, 2009 · 0 comments


Branford Marsalis: UMMG

Boy, does Branford Marsalis's take on Billy Strayhorn's "UMMG" swing! In contrast to the full, lush sounds of Duke Ellington's band, Marsalis presents the tune in a trio format led by saxophone. Reflecting both good taste and impressive artistry, you can tell that these musicians are playing for fun, as, throughout, the performance is simultaneously beautiful, spatial, and spirited. This admirable track is certainly recommended for fans of dense, three-piece harmonic interplay.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Roy Eldridge, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie: Take The 'A' Train

Oscar Peterson's spectacular intro and first statement of the famous musical theme is worth the price of admission by itself; he plays with brilliant timing, creative harmonics, verve, and some perfectly placed behind-the-beat notes, making positively rhapsodic jazz piano lines. Even better news: Eldridge, Gillespie and Peterson continue the great music-making for a full eight minutes before the track ends.

After Oscar's opening lines, Dizzy takes an extended lead with muted trumpet, playing highly creative lines, sometimes punched out, sometimes flowing, and using a varied tonal palette, all of which only occasionally hints at the basic melodic theme, but works wonderfully in its advanced musical expression. Eldridge then takes the lead, effectively accompanied by Ray Brown's walking basslines, in perfect stride; Roy's trumpet carries a huskier tone, sounding more subtle and soulful, with blues slurs adding feeling. Peterson follows with more of his jazzily ravishing piano work, and the trumpets offer further creative virtuoso lines as this track rolls on. Billy Strayhorn's classic tune has again launched impressive, innovative improvisations by genuine masters of the music, in this case with especially great rhythm and momentum.

March 20, 2009 · 0 comments


Clifford Brown & Max Roach: Take The 'A' Train

Of the four studio albums by the Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet (including “Sonny Rollins Plus 4”), “Study In Brown” is doubtlessly the weakest. Most of the songs are short and the performances seem less committed than on the other albums. On “Cherokee,” Brown seems unable to match his earlier Blue Note performance, and this version of “Take The' A' Train” tries to pack in as much arrangement as possible to the detriment of the soloists. While Brown, Roach and Harold Land all acquit themselves well in their 2-chorus solos, one wishes for more, especially at the fire-breathing tempo set by Roach. When the solo time is so truncated, it’s easy to lose patience with the long intro and coda that portrays the starting, speeding, slowing and stopping of the train. I suspect this may be an arrangement by pianist Richie Powell, who wrote many fine charts for the quintet, but whose musical immaturity in soloing and writing sometimes put a drag on the entire group.

March 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Frank Wess: Lush Life

Tenor saxophonist/flutist Frank Wess is one of the few great Basie-ites active into the 21st century. In 2008—on the heels of being honored as an NEA Jazz Master—Wess led a nonet at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola in New York. That gig led to the making of this recording. Most of the tunes on Once is Not Enough are arranged for nonet, yet there are a couple of quartet tracks, "Lush Life" being one. Joined by a rhythm section of pianist Michael Weiss, bassist Rufus Reid, and drummer Winard Harper, Wess shows he's still a formidable tenor player. He renders the Billy Strayhorn classic with a pure, bittersweet tone and unerring good taste. Wess makes melodic embellishments seem like an essential part of the tune and his improvisation an extension of Strayhorn's intent. Weiss's piano accompaniment is elegant, his solo understated and affecting. Reid and Harper know what to do and do it very well. Guys like Wess won’t be around forever. Fortunately for us, their music will be. A lovely performance.

March 13, 2009 · 0 comments


Brian Patneaude: Chelsea Bridge

"Chelsea Bridge" isn't one of the easier ballads to play, if for no other reason than it's usually taken in D-flat, which isn't one of the more common jazz keys. Tenor saxophonist Brian Patneaude does himself proud on this version of Billy Strayhorn's venerable composition, addressing the tune with respect and (in terms of the arrangement, especially) a bit of originality. Patneaude has a lovely tone—dark, smooth, mostly vibratoless. He's sensitive to the rise and fall of dynamics in the development of his improvised line, and he plays nice, coherent ideas. Guitarist Mike Moreno's solo is a bit less self-assured than Patneaude's, but he gets a full, clean and altogether lovely sound out of his instrument. If, as is often said, ballads are the ultimate tests of a jazz musician's maturity, Mr. Patneaude has definitely come of age.

March 04, 2009 · 0 comments


Kevin Mahogany: Lush Life

Billy Strayhorn's harmonically sophisticated and lyrically artsy "Lush Life" was first recorded by Nat King Cole in 1949 (not counting the composer's own then unreleased version), and thus began debate and controversy that has endured to this day. Strayhorn took affront to Cole's mangling of the lyrics and the structural distortions caused by Pete Rugolo's arrangement. In 1963, Johnny Hartman (with John Coltrane) recorded what is still considered by most to be the definitive vocal interpretation, although that hasn't stopped singers ranging from Linda Ronstadt to Sarah Vaughan from trying to do justice to Strayhorn's challenging rubato masterpiece, not to mention numerous instrumentalists. Sinatra loved it, but finding it too difficult put off recording it, at first temporarily (in 1958) and then permanently. Clarinetist Tony Scott perhaps typifies (to an extreme) the view of some towards "Lush Life," writing on his website: "The greatest singers have sung 'Lush Life' wrong." Among those either singing or playing it incorrectly, Scott cites Cole, Ella, Vaughan, Hartman, Oscar Peterson, Coltrane, Joe Pass, and Strayhorn himself!

So now we come to Kevin Mahogany's version. One of the finest voices to emerge in jazz since the '90s, Mahogany humbly places "Lush Life" 11th and dead last in the track order on his My Romance CD. He also sings "I Apologize" two selections prior, maybe subconsciously wishing to placate in advance those who might take exception to his singing of "Lush Life," or even just attempting it. Mahogany and pianist Bob James beautifully navigate the lyric and chordal minefields of Strayhorn's tune, both artists understated but assured. The warm purity of Mahogany's voice, and his clear and graceful articulation of the words help ensure his success. From his opening foghorn-like "I …" to his daringly near-falsetto closing "too," Mahogany is in full control. Yet even he flubs a word or two, singing "wheels" instead of "wheel," "hearts" instead of "heart" (the latter at least according to Strayhorn's biographer David Hadju, although everyone pluralizes it). He also enunciates "distingué" rather awkwardly, as if wanting to make sure that no one thinks he's singing "distant" instead, as many other vocalists have carelessly done.

January 23, 2009 · 0 comments


Joe Henderson: Lush Life

Joe Henderson was not just a great composer and technician, he was also a fine interpreter of standards. You can find examples of that throughout his career, but it was the major focal point of the final recording period of his life during which he recorded for Verve.

The first Verve project tackled the lofty music of Ellington cohort Billy Strayhorn, using varying band configurations. Right at the end of the record is Henderson alone scaling the most magnificent of Strayhorn compositions, "Lush Life." The melody flows from his horn without any equivocation, the transitions between shapes are effortless and the phrasing is creative but never too cute.

Joe Henderson's flawless solo presentation of "Lush Life" is the kind of performance that only a first-ballot Hall of Fame tenor player can give.

November 21, 2008 · 0 comments


Roberta Gambarini & Hank Jones: Lush Life

About a half century separates the ages of these two artists, but you wouldn't guess it from this collaboration. Jones is always youthful, no matter what the date on his birth certificate might tell you. Gambarini, for her part, performs with great maturity in this setting, eschewing skiddle-dee-doo scat pyrotechnics, which she so often delivers with great (too great?) ease, and instead digs deeply into the psychological state of this strange ballad.

You need maturity to pull off this song. Some may think that these lyrics were an example of overreaching by Strayhorn, who was still a teenager when he began work on this world-weary lament. After all, how much could he know about getting "washed away by too many through the day 12 o'clock tales." But these precocious lyrics still bowl me over. Has anyone written a more vehement denial of the whole ethos of the love song -- daring to proclaim that "romance is mush stifling those who strive." The pathos and self-duplicity of these words transcend pop tune sentimentality, just as Strayhorn's harmonies reach to the heights of art song.

Gambarini rises to the occasion here. Jones's accompaniment is very stark, but further serves to anchor this performance and contribute to its high drama. Fans will also want to check out a memorable live recording of this same song by Gambarini and Jones (with bass and drums) from the 2006 Umbria Jazz Festival.

July 30, 2008 · 0 comments


Stan Getz: Blood Count

"Blood Count" was originally titled "Blue Cloud," to be the first part of a three-part piece that Strayhorn began writing for Duke Ellington before the composer's final hospitalization in 1967. Down to 80 pounds and fighting a losing battle with cancer, he finished the tune and retitled it "Blood Count" before sending it from his hospital room to Duke for a Carnegie Hall concert that March, as a feature for Johnny Hodges. It turned out to be Strayhorn's last composition before his death on May 31st of that year.

Stan Getz had not heard the classic Ellington-Hodges recording of "Blood Count" from August 1967, and had never played it until the Pure Getz session in 1982. Yet Getz outdid Hodges and pretty much "owned" the tune from that point on, also recording it on several other occasions for both audio and video releases. In May 1987, about two years after he had conquered his alcohol and drug addictions, Getz learned that he himself had cancer. "Blood Count" had thus taken on an added underlying significance when Getz performed it brilliantly two months later at the Montmartre Club, as heard here. After a rather pensive and tranquil opening interpretation of the theme, tinged with sadness and sympathetically backed by Barron's filigreed comping, Getz delivers an alluring extended run to launch his solo, followed by heartrending cries. A graceful arpeggio leads back to the melody, played this time with a controlled passion laced with resignation and bolstered by the chilling finality of the closing tag. As Getz said shortly before his death in 1991, "I think about Strayhorn when I play the song. You can hear him dying. When it's in a minor key, you can hear the man talking to God."

May 28, 2008 · 0 comments


John Hicks: Lush Life

Some believe that the only version of "Lush Life" they'll ever need is that of Johnny Hartman with John Coltrane. However, Strayhorn's early masterpiece is so elegantly constructed and exquisitely lyrical that it cannot help but inspire other memorable renditions. One such comes from John Hicks on his Strayhorn tribute CD. Although no stranger to solo piano (hear his "Live at Maybeck Recital Hall"), he usually fronted a trio, as elsewhere on this noteworthy session.

Hicks characteristically examines every nook and cranny of "Lush Life," exploring artfully its harmonic potential and unfailingly making the right choices regarding chords, embellishments and grace notes. His deviations from the melodic line are subtle, tasteful, and fresh, and his enhancements overall only further expose the rich beauty of the tune. Hicks was a brilliant pianist, eminently comfortable playing anything from a standard to a free piece, and deserved considerably more recognition than he ever received during his lifetime. "Lush Life" will forever remain a strong testament to his ability.

April 29, 2008 · 0 comments


Andy Bey: Lush Life

Andy Bey's voice is unique, but so is his phrasing, his diction and the atmosphere he can conjure up on almost any song he decides to sing. "Lush Life" is a special case because of the special connection the singer feels with Strayhorn's compositions. Here, Bey concentrates on singing and leaves the piano to Geri Allen. The result is great. The verse is played as a slow, full-of-depth duet with Allen before the rest of the band enters. When Bey is through with the words, he scats or rather improvises sounds while the instrumentalists create a loose environment that seems to float randomly around the singer's voice.

April 11, 2008 · 0 comments


Joe Henderson: Take the 'A' Train

Joe Henderson's melodic tenor sax shines brilliantly in a duet setting. He has certainly performed several such over the years, and creates a seamless flow of musical expressions in this format, especially when spurred on by talented younger players. On this well-worn Ellington/Strayhorn standard, two musicians, their ages separated by nearly 30 years, form a magical partnership, with elder statesman Henderson propelled by a young but sensitive drummer. The tune's instant familiarity allows the listener to easily follow their explorations and even anticipate their direction. Hutchinson, for his part, plays brilliantly behind Henderson, making the listener aware of his thoughts but never upstaging the tenor journeyman. Taking an economical approach to a staple for the big bands of yesteryear, this duo proves surprisingly lively and enjoyable. Respect for the man, respect for the music is very obvious in this fine performance.

April 06, 2008 · 0 comments


Joe Henderson: Isfahan

In this Ellington/Strayhorn tune, purportedly inspired by the beauty of the Persian city of the same name, we hear the symbiotic pairing of bassist Christian McBride and Joe Henderson on tenor sax creating a beautiful and intimate musical conversation. The song, according to the liner notes, was originally written for Johnny Hodges as a result of influences absorbed while Strayhorn toured Iran with Ellington’s band in 1963. Whatever the inspiration, this exotic-sounding piece is played to perfection utilizing Henderson’s luxuriously deep and throaty sound and McBride's deft accompaniment. Henderson explores the melody's twists and turns in an adventurous solo sprung from his mind’s fertile imagination. McBride supports the master’s endeavors with accomplished walking basslines. When McBride does solo, he leads the tune through his own slightly funky landscape – a hint of a New York meets Baghdad adventure – that for a time takes the Middle Eastern-sounding melody to a more cosmopolitan place. This detour could for some break the spell of exotica, but surprisingly it leads Joe to a subtle call and response with McBride and a satisfying ending.

April 02, 2008 · 0 comments


Pete Christlieb & Bob Cooper: Passion Flower

Duke Ellington’s celebrated alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges set the standard for the performance of Billy Strayhorn’s elegant ballad “Passion Flower.” Here two tenor saxophonists a generation apart, Bob Cooper, who rose to prominence during the so-called cool period of the 1950s, and Pete Christlieb, a big-toned player of more recent vintage, honor the alto master and complement each other in a bright Latin version of the classic.

November 02, 2007 · 0 comments


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