Monday, February 05, 2007

Lush Life

[posted by Callimachus]

I've been listening to the Coltrane-Hartman recording of "Lush Life" for so many years, and it just gets deeper and better with each listening. I think it's one of the ten best things ever recorded anywhere.

When Hartman hits that final note, a capella, I think, "that has to be wrong, flat," but then the piano fills up under it and you see, astonishingly, it's just pitch-perfect, like landing a jet in pitch darkness and touching down so smoothly the passengers never wake up. The final, slow, simple 13 notes of Coltrane's phrase that wraps up the song are as complete as a Shakespeare sonnet; not one note more, or less, than should be.

There's a third "voice" in the song, of course, besides Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane; it's Billy Strayhorn, the author of the sangspiel ode to the lethal boredom that comes when one has had his fill of decadence. The words wreathe like the smoke from a forgotten cigarette, through seemingly irresolvable patterns that yet come out perfect in the end.

Not until tonight did I learn Strayhorn was all of 22 -- at most -- when he wrote that, hadn't even been to Paris, and knew no more of the cocktail life than one could gather in the 1930s in North Carolina and Pittsburgh.

Now that I know that, I can see it makes sense. Like Eliot writing "The Waste Land" as an undergraduate, "he could only have created the lyric because of, rather than in spite of, his youth and preciousness."

Only a naif would lay his feelings so totally on the line, to walk around with his soul so completely exposed that any passerby could take a shot at it.

And they took their shots at the song, too. I long ago learned to avoid most renditions of "Lush Life," which, like Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," became overdone by exactly the class of artists who were incapable of bringing out the silent power under the smooth surface. Like the site says:

Ten years ago, "Lush Life" was so overdone in every loft in Manhattan it became the last thing anybody wanted to hear. Your average jazz singer would stick the mike in her face and scat for a half-hour, following which, she would then maul "Lush Life" in an attempt to prove she could remember a lyric. And if they didn't smother both the life and the lushness out of the song, Linda Ronstadt did.

But with all the important and worthwhile readings of the tune available now and with entry-level vocalists discovering that there are other copasetic retro numbers too, we can again appreciate "Lush Life" for the great song that it is. Long after the ashtrays are full and the glasses are empty, "Lush Life" resounds as an American classic. As Ellington said way back at Carnegie in 1948, "I don't know which is better, living a 'Lush Life' or singing about it."

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