Marriage of Inconvenience
Jazz covers of rock standards have been hit or miss since the '60s -- mostly miss.
By Dave McElfresh
JANUARY 12, 1998: JAZZ HAS LONG been horribly guilty of rerecording the same old standards, tunes that were pop songs back in the '30s and '40s. Even the newest jazz players still rely on a catalog of tunes older than their grandfathers. Fortunately, jazz is slowly moving away from its reputation as old-guy music, thanks to three decades of jazz musicians gradually giving more and more attention to good writing found on more recent pop charts.
Jazz's interest in rock, however, had a dreadful beginning. The jazz-laden soundtracks for '60s teenage drive-in were orchestrated by middle-aged big band fans in charge of creating an atmosphere of psychedelica, their obligatory Ventures-like guitar themes leaving little doubt that they were oblivious to the dynamics of rock and roll. Virtually all the music sucked, and remains an embarrassment to jazz, the best example being the lame big band intro to the Beatles' soundtrack version of the song "Help." Check out the soundtrack of nearly anything directed for '60s teenagers and see if it doesn't sound to you like someone's father attempting to talk hip.
The melding gradually improved, though some of the '60s and early '70s experimenters still fell short of the mark. Hungarian jazz guitarist Gabor Szabo, whose distinctive droning style conveniently sounded a lot like a sitar, lost much credibility by recording such questionable fare as Donovan's "Sunshine Superman," Seals and Croft's "Summer Breeze" and the Carpenter's "It's Going To Take Some Time"--not exactly the stuff standards are made of.
Duke Ellington and Count Basie also tarnished their reputations by recording brassy versions of Beatles' tunes. West Coast saxophonist Bud Shank recorded an entire album of Lovin' Spoonful covers, which, thankfully, was soon deleted from his label's catalog. Young guitarist Joe Pass, not yet the jazz legend he would become, used his 12-string to record an awkward album-length tribute to the music of the Rolling Stones. And Stan Getz, at that time a heroin junkie in need of quick cash, agreed to interpret Crosby, Stills and Nash's "Marrakesh Express" as well as a slew of Burt Bacharach hits.
Other jazz players appeared to have a better understanding of the music. Ironically, George Benson, once a hardcore jazz guitarist who has since watered down jazz as much as he has contributed to it, recorded several early albums that highlighted the potential of using rock music instead of the usual George Gershwin and Cole Porter chestnuts. 1969's The Other Side Of Abbey Road did more than cover a few pop songs, it reinterpreted the entire Beatles' album. Though Benson is now known more for his vocals than his exceptional guitar work, he didn't take credit for the singing on the guitar-heavy recording, leaving listeners wondering who owned the strong, bluesy voice. In his and arranger Creed Taylor's hands, nearly every cut translated well as a jazz piece. Two years later they topped the previous effort with White Rabbit, which perfectly slipped a Spanish mood beneath the Jefferson Airplane's title cut and the Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreamin'."
CTI, Benson's label at the time, regularly coupled jazz figures with rock/pop material. Flutist Hubert Laws competently covered James Taylor's "Fire And Rain" and the soon-to-turn-lame Bob James recorded a fine version of Roberta Flack's "Feel Like Makin' Love" on one of his earliest releases for the label. CTI artists reinterpreted cuts by The Moody Blues, Steely Dan, the Monkees, the Bee Gees, Pink Floyd and Dave Mason. Some, like Deodato's version of Steely Dan's "Do It Again" worked great--unlike Benson's take on the Monkees' "Last Train To Clarksville,'' which was even worse than the original.
But big band leader Gil Evans' 1975 album Plays The Music Of Jimi Hendrix was the greatest melding of jazz and rock. An obviously honest appreciation of the late guitarist, it was quite in keeping with Evans' adoration of other colorful composers like bassist Charles Mingus. Benson and Evans were the first to successfully record the Beatles and Hendrix, to this day still the rock legends most successfully interpreted by jazz figures.
Bass god Jaco Pastorius, who showed as much respect for rock icons as jazz patriarchs, always covered Hendrix cuts like "Third Stone From The Sun" in his concerts, as well as the Beatles' "Dear Prudence," "She's Leaving Home" and "Blackbird." His bass solo version of "America" was directly influenced by Hendrix's famous Woodstock take on "The Star Spangled Banner." Jazz guitar wizard Stanley Jordan mixed typical jazz vehicles like "Autumn Leaves" with songs by Simon and Garfunkel and even, God help us, Bread, but became best known for his version of "Eleanor Rigby" and a few Hendrix covers like "Angel."
Less obvious rock fare was pulled over to the jazz side by trumpet legend Miles Davis, who spent the last five years of his life featuring Michael Jackson's "Human Nature" and Cindy Lauper's "Time After Time" in his concerts, for which he was highly criticized in spite of how well he imbued them with his style. Davis fans were deprived of what would have been a landmark recording when Hendrix died prior to carrying out his plans to play with Davis.
Fortunately for us, the '90s have offered the most interesting interpretations of rock/pop fare, some of it great and some not so hot. Pianist/arranger Bob Belden released When Doves Cry and Straight To My Heart, creative big band tributes to the music of Prince and Sting that work much better than arranger Mike Westbrook's Abbey Road, a rather weak revisiting of the classic album. The recent I Got No Kick Against Modern Jazz on the lightweight GRP label is another Beatles tribute that mixes solid covers by the likes of McCoy Tyner ("She's Leaving Home") with fluff by Dave Grusin ("Yesterday").
Jazz guitar fans owe it to themselves to check out the guitar interpretations of Beatles' classics on the two volumes of Come Together, possibly the most creative and diverse collection of rock-centered jazz yet recorded. Bringing the Beatles' influence full circle is Blue Beat, a reissuing of sometimes successful, sometimes forced Lennon-McCartney interpretations that were recorded by famous '60s jazzers like trumpeter Lee Morgan and saxophonist Stanley Turrentine when the songs were still in the Top 20.
Also worth checking out are two Hendrix tributes, Stone Free and In From The Storm, which feature John McLaughlin, Stanley Clarke, Tony Williams and Pat Metheny covering the late guitarist's classics alongside rock and blues figures like Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy. Hardcore saxophonist David Murray has released Dark Star, offering some intense interpretations of Grateful Dead classics, and pianist Herbie Hancock has done jazz an immense favor by releasing The New Standard, a blatant statement regarding the need for jazz to get over the idea that the music of the '40s was the last of the solid writing. His interpretations of Prince, Beatles, Nirvana and Peter Gabriel songs are in keeping with the screw-boundaries attitude he showed years back when his hit "Rockit" first brought jazz and hip hop together. Also well worth checking out is vocalist Cassandra Wilson, who has turned out some truly wonderful covers of songs by Neil Young, Van Morrison and U2.
We can hope that jazz won't get fooled again, getting stuck in time, allowing moss to grow on too many covers of Rolling Stones tunes at the expense of recording newer music. But even if it does, much better to hear the 10th jazz version of "Miss You" than the 100th version of a Cole Porter classic. It's not all bad news that someday your grandkid may complain that he'll gag if he hears another jazz cover of Prince's "Purple Rain."
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