By Roger Crane, the Song Scout
There is a Chelsea Bridge and it is located on the Thames in north London. According to David Hajdu’s intelligent, comprehensive and most readable 1996 biography of Billy Strayhorn, Lush Life, his evocative instrumental of the same name resulted from his viewing of a James McNeill Whistler painting. But, somewhat interestingly, although Whistler rendered several scenes of rivers and bridges in London, none were of the Chelsea Bridge. Nonetheless, Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge” is a beautiful Ravel-inspired impressionistic melody and surely one of his loveliest pieces.
As Hajdu observed, it is “classical in its integration of melody and harmony as an organic whole. There is more Debussy in ‘Chelsea Bridge ’ than Ellington.” For a traditionally structured song (three choruses and a bridge) it has one of the most intriguing melodies to ever gain popularity. For instance, the 32 measures have sixths, ninths, elevenths and thirteenths often used as melody notes. There is also a key change from D-flat in the main chorus to E-natural in the bridge, and a seven note chromatic pickup phrase.
Lyrics were added in 1958 by Bill Comstock, who later became one-fourth of the Four Freshman. But complex instrumental lines are not always singable lines and vocal versions of “Chelsea Bridge” are rare. In fact, some vocalists, such as Ella Fitzgerald and Cassandra Wilson, perform it horn-like fashion as a wordless vocal. The advanced harmonics and impressionistic qualities of this piece preclude commercial success and place it into an “art song” category that has little in common with pop music. Nonetheless, “ Chelsea Bridge ” did become popular with many jazz musicians, particularly pianists and saxophonists. Speaking of the latter, Ben Webster may “own” this song. It is a perfect vehicle for his balladic style and his predilection for lingering behind the beat. He recorded the piece several times during the 1950s and 1960s and likely deserves credit for making it into a jazz standard.
Jazz composers and arrangers of the post Second World War years often cited “ Chelsea Bridge ” as an important influence. For example, the noted arranger Gil Evans once commented “From the moment I first heard ‘ Chelsea Bridge ’ I set out to try to do that – I wanted to do what Billy Strayhorn did.”
1) Strayhorn himself recorded “ Chelsea Bridge ” as a solo piano version in 1961 for his The Peaceful Side of Billy Strayhorn recording.
2) Ben Webster was a master of the T’s (tone, time, taste, technique) and any of his recordings are memorable. But give a listen to his work with baritonist Gerry Mulligan on their 1959 Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster recording. (That is the great Jimmy Rowles at the piano.)
3) Tommy Flanagan’s interpretation (with a bit of Strayhorn’s “Raincheck” thrown in).
4) A vocal version by Cassandra Wilson, from her 1990 She Who Weeps CD (that’s Mark Johnson on the drums).
5) Harry Allen. A live rapturous version. I don’t know of a better musician on the current scene than Harry Allen. His tone is perfection and he never substitutes bathos for sincere emotion. His supporting band is stellar.
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You may wish to investigate the many other recordings of Strayhorn’s jazz classic. Amongst the pianists, Marian McPartland’s recordings are exemplary as are those of John Hicks and Ahmad Jamal. I favor guitarist Kenny Burrell’s rendition as well as vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. Jim Hall works very well in duet formats (e.g., his work with Paul Desmond and Bill Evans) and his 2008 eight-minute version with fellow guitarist Bill Frissell is ever so tasty. As would be expected, tenorist Scott Hamilton and “Chelsea Bridge” make a good pairing. Duke Ellington recorded this piece many times, three times in the year 1941 alone. Somewhat surprisingly, it was not included in the classic 1967 recording And His Mother Called Him Bill which Duke and his band released shortly after Strayhorn’s death. But this recording does include heartfelt performances of many Strayhorn pieces (e.g., listen to Johnny Hodges’ emotional reading of “Blood Count.”)
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Enjoy. As always, comments welcomed.
Roger, the Intrepid Song Scout
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