Billy Strayhorn

Lotus Blossom

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Released in 1990, Lotus Blossom: The Billy Strayhorn Project was hardly the first Strayhorn tribute album and certainly wasn't the last either. Over the years, everyone from fl├╝gelhornist Art Farmer to singer Allan Harris has recorded Strayhorn tributes -- and it can be safely assumed that there will be many more to come. Strayhorn was, after all, Duke Ellington's right-hand man for 28 years; they first joined forces in 1939 and kept working together right up until Strayhorn's death in 1967. The more interesting Strayhorn tributes are the ones that offer some surprises, and Lotus Blossom is full of them. Much to his credit, Michael Hashim doesn't inundate listeners with obvious choices on this CD (which employs Hashim on alto and soprano sax, Michael Le Donne on piano, Dennis Irwin on bass, and Kenny Washington on drums). "Something to Live For" has been recorded enough times to be considered a standard but, for the most part, Hashim embraces Strayhorn's lesser-known material -- in fact, he avoids famous gems like "Lush Life," "Take the 'A' Train," and "Chelsea Bridge." Those who have only a casual interest in Strayhorn's work may not be familiar with "Smada," "Juniflip," "Sunset and the Mockingbird (The Queen's Suite)," or "Grievin'"; someone who knows all of these pieces is more likely to be a serious jazz connoisseur. Unfortunately, many of today's straight-ahead jazz artists wouldn't dream of recording an album that emphasizes Strayhorn's lesser-known compositions -- they would rather be lazy and give listeners yet another predictable, knee-jerk version of "Take the 'A' Train," which is sad because a song doesn't have to be a standard to have value. Strayhorn, like Ellington, was an amazingly prolific composer -- he wrote a lot of valuable pieces that never became standards, and Hashim deserves applause for acknowledging that fact on this ambitious tribute.

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