Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Billy Strayhorn Centennial: 5 Deep Cuts

Portrait of Billy Strayhorn
William Gottlieb Collection (c. 1946)

Billy Strayhorn's centennial is coming up in November! We're getting the celebration started early with Allan Harris Quartet with Eric Reed's Tribute (10/1-4). And to ready ourselves for the music of one of America's greatest composers, we've dug deep into Strayhorn's discography to bring you five deep cuts you must hear.

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Most Strayhorn fans are well aware of "The Star-Crossed Lovers" off Such Sweet Thunder (a suite very personal to Strayhorn, an avid reader of William Shakespeare). However, this Johnny Hodges feature was actually recorded a few years earlier on Hodges' Creamy under the title "Pretty Little Girl."

Late in his career, Strayhorn gravitated toward classical composition. "Suite for Horn and Piano" might be the most beautiful thing Strayhorn ever wrote. Although classical in form, it is unmistakably Strayhorn in its dense harmony and ponderous, gorgeous melody.

While "Lush Life" is without a doubt his most famous composition, this lesser-known recording features Strayhorn himself on piano and voice. It's far from perfect. His voice cracks, and is out of tune at times. But this matter-of-fact, conversational rendition captures the essence of the song more than any other recording.

Strayhorn wrote "Upper Manhattan Medical Group" for the medical staff (in particular Duke Ellington's personal physician, Dr. Arthur Logan, a dear friend) who took care of him after his cancer diagnosis in 1964. Ellington & His Orchestra recorded "U.M.M.G" on ...And His Mother Called Him Bill (1967) shortly after Strayhorn's death.

Strayhorn was especially talented at writing ballads. "A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing" stands as one of his most beautiful ballads, in particular a 1961 recording done in Paris, featuring the Paris String Quartet and Strayhorn himself on piano (originally released on The Peaceful Side in 1963).

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