Various Artists: Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life (Blue Note)
It’s not really accurate to say that Billy Strayhorn has been flying under the radar all these years. As the writer and arranger of so many classic tunes by Duke Ellington (and others), his name and work are both well-known. But he has gotten a lot of attention in recent years thanks to David Hajdu’s late ’90s biography (Lush Life, named after one of Strayhorn’s greatest songs) and now, a PBS documentary and an accompanying CD (both called Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life). Produced by Robert Levi, this Strayhorn tribute (he died in 1967 at only 51) doesn’t play like your typical all-star extravaganza, though there are a number of well-known jazz players on it, plus the ubiquitous Elvis Costello. But what makes this album work so beautifully is that it consists of small-group and solo pieces, so there’s never any clutter or a feeling of “too many cooks.” Everything here is supremely tasteful, because the producer’s overall vision seems to have been to let the beautiful simplicity of Strayhorn’s melodies and his elegant and intelligent harmonies be heard in their purest form.
Bill Charlap, Hank Jones and Peter Martin divide the all-important piano role, and all show the light, deft touch required by Strayhorn’s breezier material (“Fantastic Rhythm,” “Satin Doll” et al), as well as the darker shades of blue demanded by some of the ballads. Dianne Reeves, who has been enjoying a resurgence of her own since appearing in the film Good Night, and Good Luck two years ago, brings her magnificent interpretive gifts to six of the seven vocal tunes, perfectly capturing both Strayhorn’s lyric cleverness and the melancholy underpinnings at the core of so many of his ballads. “Lush Life,” sung with just Russell Malone’s guitar behind her, has never sounded better, and the album-closing “So This Is Love” is deeply moving. I wasn’t dissing Elvis Costello above—the reason he’s asked to be on so many pop and jazz albums is that he brings great character and class to everything he tackles, and “My Flame Burns Blue,” backed by Joe Lovano on tenor sax and Charlap on piano, is a good match for his formidable balladic skills. Lovano also shines on the instrumentals “Johnny Come Lately” and “Lotus Blossom”—he has a marvelously conversational tone that sounds like singing.
There’s a picture of Strayhorn on the back of CD booklet in which he is sitting against a colorful fabric wall hanging, staring off distantly into space—not looking sad, exactly, but perhaps weighted down by something (or thoughts of someone). That quality is in his writing, too, yet again and again he transformed those feelings into transcendent pieces of music that have truly withstood the test of time. And this CD captures that side of Strayhorn’s character beautifully, too.
Producer: Robert Levi. Co-produced by George Seminara and Joshua Blum. Recorded by Dae Bennett. Mixed by Dave Kowalski. Studio: Bennett Studios (Englewood, N.J.). Mastering: Kurt Lundvall/Lundvall Mastering (Jersey City, N.J.).
Bill Kirchen: Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods (Proper American)
The title track to Bill Kirchen's latest CD is a rock 'n' roll tribute to his trusty Telecaster—the well-loved instrument that looks like a toy in his hands. During a recent concert at the Freight and Salvage, a longtime coffee house and roots music showcase in Berkeley, Calif., Kirchen played Hammer straight through, end to end, just two days after the album’s release. He riveted the sold-out audience just as easily as he did with more well-known songs going back to his Commander Cody days. His music is a rare combination of masterful and lovable, as he moves from the Bakersfield country style of "Get a Little Goner" to a doo-wop version of "Devil With a Blue Dress," to a delicate soul song like Arthur Alexander's "If It's Really Got to Be This way." Kirchen is a guitar virtuoso of the highest order, but he brings zero ego to his playing; every note serves the song. He's got a pretty sweet singing voice, too. Combine Kirchen's unprepossessing talents with a band of some of his most talented friends (Nick Lowe, bass; Austin DeLone, keyboards; Robert Trehern, drums; Garaint Watkins, keyboards), and you have a thoroughly enjoyable gift from the honky-tonk gods.
Must play: Title track; includes the soon-to-be-famous line "It was born at the junction of form and function."
Producers: Kirchen, Paul "Bassman" Riley. Engineers: Riley, Jeff Covert, Danny Levin, Cris Burns, Erik Carstensen. Studios: Specific Sound (London, UK), Wally Cleaver's (Fredericksburg, Va.), Tequila Mockingbird and Bismeaux (both in Austin, Texas) and Jecar Studio.
LCD Soundsystem: Sound of Silver (Capitol)
Super-producer James Murphy and his band of merry men and woman have created a genius follow-up to their self-titled debut full-length release with Sound of Silver. A funky, percussion-driven masterpiece, Sound of Silver is loaded with characteristic Murphyisms: a dry sense of humor, disco synths and hard-thumping percussion, all with a hint of ’80s punk. “Get Innocuous,” the album’s opener, is a shimmering synth floor banger that gets the party started, while Murphy’s sarcasm shines bright in “North American Scum,” with lines like “I hate the feelin’ when you’re lookin’ at me that way/‘cause we’re North Americans/ but if we act all shy, it’ll make it okay/makes it go away.” “Watch the Tapes” has a fist-pumping tempo and fat synth grooves, while the album’s closer, “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down,” is an instant classic: Murphy croons lines such as “Like a death of the heart/Jesus, where do I start?/But you’re still the one pool where I’d happily drown” over a sparkly piano that builds into a rock-guitar masterpiece that’ll make you pull out your lighter and shout “encore!” And then you’ll press Repeat All.
Produced by the DFA. Engineered by Erik Broucek. Mixed by James Murphy. Recorded, produced, mixed and engineered at Long View Farm Studios and Plantain Recording House, New York City. Mastering: Geoff Pesche at Abbey Road, London, UK.
—Lori J. Kennedy