Johnny Hodges & His Orchestra, Bluebird 30-0817, 1944
If you haven’t listened to this record before, you may be startled like I was after the first eight bars, when Johnny Hodges’ alto sax leaps up out of the horn section’s measured, blended ensemble with its eerie, keening cries. Jarring, and then profoundly beautiful.
There was no better pairing of instrumentalist and songwriter in all of popular music than Johnny Hodges and Billy Strayhorn. Hodges was an Ellington stalwart on sax for decades, and was a key component in the Ellington Orchestra’s sound. But he was particularly suited to the ballads of Mr. Strayhorn, Mr. Ellington’s right-hand composer-arranger-accompanist.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that a disproportionate number of Strayhorn’s slow-to-medium-tempo compositions were named after flowers
Strayhorn’s most well-known composition is the bouncy, up-tempo Ellington Orchestra theme song “Take the ‘A’ Train.” But his ballads especially draw me in, with their deep, dark, alluring beauty. His moody, complex “Lush Life” made it into Will Friedwald’s Stardust Melodies: A Biography of 12 of America’s Most Popular Songs, right alongside “Mac the Knife,” “My Funny Valentine,” and, of course, “Stardust.”
It shouldn’t be a surprise that a disproportionate number of Strayhorn’s slow-to-medium-tempo compositions were named after flowers: “Lotus Blossom,” “Lament for an Orchid,” “Ballad for Very Tired and Very Sad Lotus Eaters,” “Violet Blue,” “In a Blue Summer Garden.” Best of all of these, though—right up there with “Daydream” and “Chelsea Bridge”—were “Passion Flower” (1944) and “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” (1947).
Others have covered these songs. Strayhorn himself recorded them in Paris in 1961, on The Peaceful Side. (Incredibly, on this, his only album as leader, Strayhorn is not given writing credits for these songs! “Passion Flower” is shown as being by E. Coates and G. Wiskin, and “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” is credited to Duke Ellington. According to David Hajdu, in his Billy bio Lush Life, Strayhorn wrote in his name on copies he gave to friends.) The recordings are truly beautiful, with assists from the vocal group The Paris Blue Notes and a string quartet. But we miss Johnny Hodges.
Hodges introduced both of these songs on side projects, as Johnny Hodges & His Orchestra. The “Orchestra” playing on “Passion Flower” comprised Ellington players Jimmy Blanton, Sonny Greer, Harry Carney, Lawrence Brown, Ray Nance, and the Duke himself. A mostly different set of Ellingtonians played on “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” and Billy Strayhorn himself handled piano duties. Nice backup bands, yes, to allow Hodges’ alto to careen and wail so untethered, so plaintively that the immense emotional depth of Strayhorn as channeled through Hodges is overwhelming. How fortuitous it was that these two were brought together musically.