Weird At My School: Lush Life

by DJ El Toro

My schedule is just way too hectic this week. And I blame Rickie Lee Jones.

As you already know -- because you just renewed your membership, right? -- KEXP is in the middle of our Summer Membership Drive. Which requires an extra commitment from all the staff. But I guess I can’t blame Rickie Lee for that one. Nor did she coerce me into covering an extra shift for Stevie Zoom this Tuesday night from 9 PM to 1 AM, then stepping in for Troy on Friday morning from 1 AM to 6 AM.

But our sleepy little town is also in the grip of the Seattle International Film Festival right now. The SIFF folks asked some of the KEXP on-air hosts to introduce music-related films, and I damn near fell out of my chair hustling to assume those duties for the documentary Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life. Never mind that the showings are tonight and Wednesday afternoon, smack in the middle of a hellishly busy week. I was compelled to take on this extra assignment.

And that one rests solely on Rickie Lee Jones’ shoulders.

Billy Strayhorn was one of the most significant composers of the jazz era. He served as Duke Ellington’s lieutenant for decades, and wrote classics including “Take The ‘A’ Train” and “Satin Doll.” He lived life as a gay man in an era when that choice required far more sacrifices -- and discretion -- than today. (For more details, you can read my earlier review of the film here.) But “Lush Life” remains his signature piece, possibly the finest pop song written in the 20th century -- although if you care to argue the merits of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” as an alternative, I am open to that debate.

I first heard “Lush Life” in 1983, on the 7-song Rickie Lee Jones EP Girl At Her Volcano. I was sixteen -- allegedly the same age as Strayhorn when he wrote it -- and her rendition blew the top of my adolescent head off. Part of that, I now realize, is due to the odd structure of the original material: The irregular phrases of its 28-measure verse, and a ever-unfurling lyric of sophisticated, interlocking rhymes, like “where one relaxes/on the axis/of the wheel of life/to get the feel of life/from jazz and cocktails.”

But what really struck my ear was the rising and falling of the bohemian chanteuse’s voice, how she took that natural patterns of speech inherent in Strayhorn’s melody, and exaggerated them; at times, her delivery sounds eerily suggestive of Billie Holiday (who reportedly hoped to record “Lush Life,” yet never did). And wildly disparate from the smooth, better-known versions by Nat “King” Cole and Johnny Hartman that would define this musical marvel for me in later life. Plus, Rickie Lee’s arrangement interpolates these unexpected, fleeing hints of euphoria, yielding an erratic performance that heightens the song’s quietly tortured poetry.

Alas, Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life does not feature footage of Rickie Lee Jones. But it does have Elvis Costello, interpreting one of Strayhorn’s final songs, “Blood Count.” And a compelling story, some fascinating social history, and an unbeatable selection of songs. It is well worth taking time out of your busy schedule to see. Trust me, I should know.

DJ El Toro is the host of the overnight show In Between Sleep & Reason, Wednesday mornings from 1 AM to 6 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org. His column, Weird At My School, appears every Monday on the KEXP Blog.

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