Throughout his career, Billy Strayhorn made incomparable art out of the bittersweet regions of human experience. From “Lush Life” to “Blood Count,” his were often songs of disconsolate heartache, poignant ambivalence or jaded resignation. But Strayhorn, with and without Duke Ellington, also produced some of the most jubilant melodies in jazz. Despite an irresistible urge to overlay his personal history across the emotional topography of his compositions, the music tells a deeper and more complicated tale.
Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life, a new documentary on PBS, attempts to unravel that story over the course of 90 minutes. Taking a page or two from David Hajdu’s similarly titled biography of a decade ago, the film focuses on Strayhorn’s experience as an openly gay African-American composer, perpetually stationed just outside the spotlight’s glare. A companion soundtrack, produced by Robert Levi, features several prominent artists from the Blue Note Records roster. Even judged apart from the film, their contributions add up to a potent homage.
In essence, the album is three distinct tributes, smartly interspersed. The hardiest portion belongs to singer Dianne Reeves, who sings four of her six entries with Peter Martin on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass and Greg Hutchinson on drums. If it sounds a bit like the straightforward setup Reeves used for the Grammy-winning soundtrack to the movie Good Night, and Good Luck, that seems to be the idea, at least where tunes like “My Little Brown Book” are concerned.
But on “The Flowers Die of Love,” Reeves gets a bit more expansive, letting her broad vibrato resonate freely over what could almost be a Celtic ballad. She wisely chooses intimate accompaniment-just Russell Malone on an acoustic guitar-for her hushed rendition of “Lush Life.” And on “So This Is Love,” which closes the compilation, she catches the Strayhorn melancholy perfectly, savoring the sting of “the aching in my head/the way my face turns red/when someone mentions your name.”
The second batch of material features a quartet of tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, pianist Hank Jones, bassist George Mraz and drummer Paul Motian. This is the same group responsible for two of the finest small-group jazz albums in Blue Note’s recent catalog, and their four songs here stand up to the comparison. Lovano is a gruff-but-gallant delight on “Rain Check,” and the depth of his rapport with Jones distinguishes a pair of ballads, “Lotus Blossom” and “Chelsea Bridge.” The group’s take on “Johnny Come Lately” recalls Joe Henderson’s, from another songbook album called Lush Life (Verve). But that was 15 years ago; the tune still sounds fresh, and Motian’s halting ride cymbal pattern gives this version a subtle new twist.
The program’s third portion is a bouquet of solo and duo piano performances by Bill Charlap, who kicks things off with a buoyant “Fantastic Rhythm” and later offers “Valse,” a wistful classical theme, and Jones, who fashions a judiciously reharmonized “Satin Doll.” The two pianists tackle “Tonk” together with crisp and joyous coordination, in a fond tribute to the fourhanded Strayhorn-Ellington duets of the mid-’40s.
Finally, there’s one track that sticks out: “My Flame Burns Blue,” a ballad based on Strayhorn’s “Blood Count.” Elvis Costello, who wrote the artful lyrics, sings the song with minimal accompaniment (Charlap’s piano, Lovano’s tenor obbligato). Some listeners may balk at his tone, or his tendency to quaver just underneath a pitch, but there’s no disputing the merits of the song itself. While I’ll confess to preferring the Vince Mendoza-scored orchestral version on Costello’s recent album of the same name, “My Flame Burns Blue” deserves its place of pride on this well-conceived salute.