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


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


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


Phineas Newborn, Jr.: Lush Life

A lengthy quote from the second movement of Ravel's deeply impressionistic "Sonatine" ushers in a somewhat Tatum-esque rendering of the Strayhorn classic. Newborn has the technical ability to do it: speed, touch, and ideas at such speed too. But here he spares his gifts and focuses on depth and feeling. He stays close to a melody that has so much beauty it can keep the rangiest improvisers within its borders. So Newborn never strays far and mainly varies the pace from chorus to chorus, embellishing with limitless inspiration. Obviously a wise choice, given the fine result.

February 04, 2008 · 0 comments


Geri Allen: Lush Life

In her solo intro, Allen displays a beautiful piano sound and gorgeous voicings that emphasize the sheer beauty of Strayhorn's composition. The trio part carries on with this mood, accentuating the swing but never straying too far from the melody until the last three minutes of the track. And when it does, Allen's improvisation sounds so inspired and bathed in the atmosphere she formerly created, that it's a wonder. Great partners like Holland and DeJohnette and beautiful material like Strayhorn's song are not enough; Geri Allen shows a deep understanding of this tune. An understanding that involves the brain, the heart, and some fingers, too.

February 04, 2008 · 0 comments


Gary Thomas: Lush Life

Although Gary Thomas is better known for hard-driving improv than for playing classic ballads, on this track he spends more time playing the theme of this wonderful Strayhorn composition than improvising. And he does so as a master stylist, tackling the melody with a tenor timbre that doesn't sound as dark as usual. Pat Metheny supports him on acoustic guitar in a very basic and unsophisticated way, as close to the natural sound of the instrument as possible. This duet remains not only a fine version of a timeless standard, but an unexpected foray out of their usual paths by two great musicians.

January 31, 2008 · 0 comments


John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman: Lush Life

If you know someone who hates jazz, try an experiment. Secure a rope, tie that person to a chair (not too tight) and play "Lush Life" for them. Don’t forget your stopwatch to measure how quickly their expression dissolves from resentment to bliss. The folks at Guinness World Records keep track of such things. Cynics may dismiss this song about "jazz and cocktails" as make-out music, with more atmosphere than oxygen. But it boggles the mind that a youthful Strayhorn could write so profoundly, just as the mature Hartman's romantic baritone boggles the heart. (Hart-man indeed!) "Lush Life" is make-out music for the gods.

October 30, 2007 · 0 comments


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