Friday, November 23, 2012

All I care is to smile in spite of it

I first encountered "Lush Life" when I was around the same age as Billy Strayhorn was when he wrote it. In the early/mid-80s, Linda Ronstadt mounted a career second (or third) act by continuing to make matchless covers other artists' songs, but during this era, instead of recreating the hits of her peers, she turned to pop songs of an earlier era. Three collaborations with bandleader Nelson Riddle produced three hit albums and introduced kids like me (whose parents dug her Cali-country take on pop and rock songs) to the songbook of Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, and Strayhorn. Linda's is one of those voices that, If I Could Have a Singer's Voice and Persona, I Want That One--but that is a feature I just made up that I'll have to launch another time on this jukebox.

Hearing "Lush Life" around 1984, I didn't really understand how "too many through the day" would make the girls' faces "sad and sullen gray," but I got the mournful remorse of loss at that tender age, and the declaration of, god, just moving forward somehow while there's pain in the heart and the brain. Rotting in a dive? That would come--and cease, thankfully--later.

Strayhorn is a character; protege of and then lifelong collaborator with Duke Ellington, who said that "Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine." All that and he wrote the lyrics for "Take the A Train," too. Black, gay, gifted in classical music in a time when all three were a liability, he forged ahead anyway. Like you do.

But, my god--I just heard Johnny Hartman for what is likely the first time only about nine hours ago, and this track about an hour ago, and I am gobsmacked, a puddle on the floor and a half-dozen other cliches for simply mesmerized. The facility, the interpretive nuance, the command of his voice, the sheer ear-ease of it all.

And, oh yeah, Trane plays, too.

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