Relaxing on the Axis

It's a well known piece of jazz folklore that Billy Strayhorn wrote Lush Life when he was only sixteen years old. Friends of his recall hearing versions of it as early as 1933, however he completed it over a number of years, gradually adding to it and refining it. At first he tended to perform it as a party piece at private gatherings, and it only received its premiere in a concert in 1948 at Carnegie Hall sung by Kay Davis, with Billy himself at the piano. Although the concert also featured the Ellington Orchestra, the performance was basically a duet between Strayhorn and Davis, with the Orchestra only joining in on the last chord.

Davis remembers that Strayhorn was very particular about how the song should be sung "down to every little inflection." Interestingly he never did a full big band arrangement of the piece. His notebooks show that he was working on an arrangement about this time but he seems to have abandoned it.

The song has become one of the most recorded in the history of jazz, with most singers tackling it at some point. Notable versions include those by Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Nancy Wilson with perhaps the most famous recording being the one Johnny Hartman made with John Coltrane in 1963. Frank Sinatra had a couple of attempts at singing it but never completed a full take, although some bootlegs exist. Billie Holliday is perhaps the only iconic jazz singer never to have recorded it. Strayhorn himself recorded it in 1964 in a trio setting.

The sophistication of the songs lyrics are often remarked upon, along with surprise that someone so young could have written something so mature and world-weary. For me though the lyrics are appropriately perhaps, quite adolescent. They seem to display the heightened emotions and self dramatisation that often characterise adolescence - when the end of a relationship can literally feel like the end of the world. The song's description of a life of nightclubs, cocktails and girls with 'sad and sullen grey faces' seems somewhat romanticised, and even the cynicism and world-weariness appear affected; with the singer almost reveling in his/her dissolution. It's interesting to contrast the Strayhorn performance with other versions of the song.

In contrast to some singers who try and wring every ounce of emotion out of the lyric, Strayhorn sings it in a low-key, almost off-hand way. His thin, reedy voice couldn't be more different to Hartman's rich baritone. There is a kind of ironic detachment in his performance and he even seems to chuckle slightly when he comes to that sigh at the end of the verse "Ah yes I was wrong... Again I was wrong." This would make sense considering that the narrator's conclusion from all his travails is that "Romance is mush, stifling those who strive", surely this should mitigate against an overly emotional, romantic interpretation of the song? I think Lady Gaga might disagree with me on this!

In this post I plan to analyse the composition with particular reference to Strayhorn's use (consciously or unconsciously) of the axis system - the system of tonal relationships between chords a minor third apart identified by Erno Lendvai in his study of the music of Bartok. (For a more complete description of the system see my previous post "Some applications of the axis system".)

As ever, with any jazz performance finding an accurate rendering of the song's harmony is quite difficult. I've tended to use the 1964 Strayhorn performance as my main reference point, whilst also bearing in mind that Strayhorn probably never played the tune exactly the same way twice. Of the three fakebook versions of the song, the one that is closest to this performance is this version from the Jazz Fake Book (1959).

The song is composed of a verse and a chorus. The verse is 32 bars in length, the chorus is 24 bars. Unlike with most other standards which have a verse and a chorus, the chorus is never sung without the verse - the verse is integral to the song.

Strayhorn begins his version with a short intro, which alternates between Dbmaj7 and Dmin7b5, prefiguring the rocking movement of the song's opening refrain. The first section of the song alternates between Dbma7 and B7#11. The B7 is a very common axis substitution for Ab7 (the so-called backdoor cadence), so the B7 essentially functions as the dominant of the Dbmaj7.

In bar 4 a very interesting thing happens: the progression moves up diatonically from Dbmaj7 to Ebmin7 (I to II), at which point it repeats the same progression, but up a minor third Emaj7

to F#min7. Strayhorn then continues up to the III chord (Abmin7) in the new key, (Emaj) in effect modulating up a minor third using the axis relationships.

It's also very interesting that this cycle around the axis occurs just as Strayhorn sings "Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life"! I suspect this is just a coincidence. I don't even know if Strayhorn was aware of the axis relationship in a theoretical sense, but nevertheless it remains a neat concurrence. Interestingly the New Real Book version has a different progression here. This follows the Hartman/Coltrane arrangement where the chords go Dbmaj7 Ebmin7 Fmin7 F#min7 and then to Abmin7. This achieves the same end, but I find the original progression more effective.

The harmony then moves back to the tonic by way of a secondary dominant: Abmin7 / D7 (tritone sub of Ab7) which resolves back to Dbmaj7 then shifts up to D7 before ending back on the tonic. The Hartman/Coltrane version resolves to Dbmin here, although most other versions use Db major. The harmony is really just see-sawing between the tonic and some kind of substituted dominant chord (either B7 or D7). This gives the music its restless unsatisfied quality, which beautifully captures the mood of the lyrics. One remarkable thing about this song is the way the music and lyrics so perfectly complement one another.

At this point the song modulates into the key of Fmin, again reflecting the change of mood in the lyric "Then you came along, with your siren song...". The mode is definitely Dorian at this point with Strayhorn emphasising the D natural on the phrase "Tempt me to madness". When this phrase repeats however, the D natural becomes Db on "Filled with a sadness" signalling a move to the harmonic minor, paving the way for the modulation back to Db major. This seems to catch some singers out. Lady Gaga sings the D natural both times, as does Nat King Cole. Both Nancy Wilson and Kurt Elling sing the Db both times ignoring the D natural. Frank Sinatra doesn't seem to know which note he's supposed to be singing! Obviously this is jazz, and singers can interpret the melody however they want to, but I feel Strayhorn was aiming for a particular effect here, which should be considered when interpreting the song. At this point the harmony moves back into Db major although the final resolution back to the I chord is delayed by a II V III VI II V progression with a nice use of a tritone sub on the III chord (B7#11).

For the chorus we're back on the tonic again, and the next section of melody also contains pitfalls for the unwary singer! The harmony is again see-sawing between the I chord and a substituted dominant - in this case D7 (the straight tri-tone sub of Ab7). The melody duly follows the harmony, which creates some tricky chromatic intervals, which sadly prove too much for Lady Gaga! Listen to the Ella Fitzgerald version to hear them sung perfectly.

The end of the first 4 bars of the chorus also sees a move up a minor 3rd, by way of a rising melodic line, into E major, again exploiting the axis relationship between the keys of Db major and E major. There's a little chromatic walk down, and the same harmony is repeated, except this time the rising line sees a modulation to F major, a semitone higher than E major. This creates a little lift in the harmony. It's almost as if the the melody is trying to climb out of its tonic/dominant stupor.

At this point there's a switch in tone as the singer contemplates his/her "week in Paris". The music duly moves up another min 3rd to Ab major, again reflecting this slight lifting of spirits, but it doesn't last long, and the harmony modulates back to Db again by way of D major (another axis move), and C major, after which we get another chromatic walk down back to the tonic. It's as if whichever way he/she tries, the singer just can't break free; and keeps being pulled back to this Db major tonic/dominant axis. My slight problem with the Hartman/Coltrane version is that, probably to make it more effective as a soloing vehicle, they ironed out a lot of these chromatic corners, which I feel are important for the meaning of the song.

We then get a third statement of the first section of the chorus, this time the final modulation is to the relative minor and the melody reaches a kind of crisis point when the singer sings: " You are still burning inside my brain." But there's no ultimate resolution, and the best the singer can do is reach a kind of resigned acceptance: "Romance is mush stifling those who strive/I'll live a lush life in some small dive".

Strayhorn makes explicit use of the axis system in the progression which underpins these words: Ebmin / F#min7 B7 | A7#11 /Ab7/ |. This is essentially just a II V progression, the second half of the II bar being replaced by a II V a minor third up. He then drops to A7#11, which is a tritone sub for Ebmin7, which then moves to Ab7 in the second half of the bar. This is a very sophisticated use of substitution which anticipates progressions explored by Coltrane over two decades later!

The progression then proceeds: Db major / Db min7 Gb7 | B major / F min7 Bb7 |. Although on the face of it this looks like a modulation down to B maj, I see this progression as basically being a I IV7 III VI progression with the B maj chord being effectively a tritone sub for the III chord (Fmin7). Again, a very sophisticated use of chord substitution, which wouldn't seem out of place in a Bill Evans tune.

Strayhorn then repeats his altered II V I progression as the singer sings: "So there I'll be, as I rot with the rest". The final two bars produce the greatest harmonic divergence between the different versions, each rendition finding a different way of dealing with that chromatically rising line.

As far as the fakebook versions of the ending go, I think the Jazz Fake Book (printed above) has it about right, although to my ears Strayhorn definitely plays a rootless D9 voicing on the the penultimate note. The bass doesn't play on this note, so it could either be a D9 or an Ab7alt before the final Db major chord. The Real Book 1 has the last bar as being, |Ebmin6 D7 Dbmaj / | and the New Real Book 1 has the Coltrane changes, which has a chromatically rising string of altered chords (Ab7 alt A7 alt Bb7 alt B7 alt | C7 alt D7 Db maj7 / |), which has become perhaps the most common solution.

For what it's worth, of all the versions I've listened to, I think Ella probably takes the prize. She knows the song, and nails all the important notes, but still interprets it in her own way. She sings it with feeling, but doesn't overdo the emotion, and Oscar Peterson's accompaniment is great too.

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