This post is a stream of consciousness on the covering of pop tunes by jazz artists (honest musical escapism or a clever marketing ploy? Or both?). This is tricky territory but a discussion worth having. I’m aware that by pondering such issues I risk slating a jazz musician’s aesthetic judgement, a judgement they could have spent a lifetime nurturing.
The Bad Plus, a band I admire and whose pianist is an inspiration of mine (both in terms of his writing and playing) first came to my attention with their major label debut, These Are The Vistas. The USP track, the tune that would hook the media, was a cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit. It’s a very simple arrangement that never veers too far from the four-chord pop harmony, and as such it is relatively radio friendly.
As a 17 year-old, at the time trying to bridge my love for Oscar Peterson’s Night Train and Franz Ferdinand’s self-titled debut, it was a revelation. I mean, come on, here’s a guy improvising over power chords. This is a bit of me.
However I’m 26 now, nearly a decade on, and I don’t know if it’s the increasingly present curmudgeon in me but I’m able to simultaneously identify These Are The Vistas as a great album both in terms of music and marketing.
It is a great album. An incredibly clever album in fact, especially when you suspect certain musical decisions were made with promotion in mind. A tune like Keep The Bugs Off Your Glass And The Bears Off Your Ass, a bass-led deconstructed slice of deep-south Americana, is audibly indebted to the Jarrett American Quartet of the 70s. Modern Jazz. Silence Is The Question is a snail-paced contemplative meditation with a lush melody, subtle harmonic dissonance bolstering the thematic statements, polyphonic improvisation and rising dynamics. This isn’t radio friendly. Modern Jazz. Big Eater, with it’s varying time signatures, Stravinsky-esque juxtaposing structure, ‘outside’ improvisations. Modern Jazz. All this present on an album that was winning plaudits across an array of press.
Have a look at this review from Entertainment Weekly. Whilst it initially reads like a mediocre, rushed example of hack writing, in the context of this discussion it is an interesting piece as it supports the notion that pop elements in fresh jazz albums help promotion and press coverage. For example much is made of the punk/rock feel to the group dynamic, and the only tunes mentioned are the three covers. No explicit mention of the more demanding, non-recognisable originals.
Try and get hold of a pre-fame/TBP Ethan Iverson album, such as his take on Standards from 1998, Deconstruction Zone. Many of the descriptions that tag The Bad Plus in the EW review (punk, wild, loose, anarchy) could easily be applied to much of this work. However there are no pop covers, so what will the EW readership cling on to?!
As I’ve previously stated I enjoy the album, I have no major qualms with the covers (Flim’s genius) and most importantly it’s a work TBP can be aesthetically proud of. Yet I can’t help but suspect Smells Like Teen Spirit was purposely restrained. Would they record it the same way today? Or, with the cachet they now hold would they NEED to record it the same way today?
There is an argument, a quite sensible and obvious one really, that the inclusion of contemporary pop within any modern jazz set is simply following the jazz tradition. Wasn’t the great American songbook the pop of its time? What’s wrong with trying to broaden the appeal of jazz? Nothing, up until the point if effects the quality of the music. A career in jazz (be it musician, promoter, label owner etc.) is ‘skin of your teeth stuff’, but you do it for the love and passion. What I fear could happen with pop covers is an imbalance between art and money driven ego.
There’s also a musical aspect to this. If you cover the pop tune verbatim, particularly the chords, you’re ignoring the richness and complexity of jazz harmony. No amount of rhythmic variation or clever arrangement can replace this. Herbie Hancock tried to limit this issue with his arrangement of The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood. Harmonically it’s pretty clever stuff.
There’s history to this updating of the repertoire…
Miles in 85. I love this video; audacious Japanese stadium jazz at it’s most extreme! Look at Miles’ one-handed-trumpet swagger and the size of the crowd from 7:05!
Jaco in 86. This bootlegged live album is my favourite recording of Jaco’s.
In his autobiography Miles freely opined that his musical decisions were often based on his need to be popular, to sell records. Yet we forgive all that simply because he’s Miles. Jaco I suspect, with his vast wealth of session experience, had a natural affinity with pop. A trio date under his own name was the perfect vehicle to elevate such songs to his level. I don’t have an issue with any of this so far, but I do take issue with this.
I don’t see the artistic point to any of those musical titbits, and I certainly couldn’t imagine any other artist be so willing to string a pop medley together. He reduces his playing to a ‘jazz goes pop’ gimmick, purely for album sales/press attention, and the shot of the glamorous celebs indulging in the background leaves a nasty taste. It’s a shame. Yaron’s obviously a very talented pianist with some great compositional ideas, but to my ears he’s too eager to reduce his playing to a base level of overt sweetness. With less focus on the musical trickery I think we’ll hear the best of him. Just my opinion.
Back to Keith Jarrett. Here is a bootleg of him covering Bob Dylan’s My Back Pages, an arrangement very close to the album recording, backbeat and everything. You can’t tell me, along with his penchant for covering The Beatles in his early solo concerts, that this wasn’t played with the cool-factor in mind?
Gordon Beck, the great British pianist who in his own distinct manner utilised the colours synonymous with Bill Evans to urge his piano to sing, even turned to Top Of The Pops for inspiration. The album was Experiments With Pops, and the front-line duties were given to a then unknown 25 year-old electric guitarist, John McLaughlin (you can’t get much cooler than that). Tunes such as The Beatles’ Michelle and Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Were Made For Walking were given the glacial jazz treatment. Michelle in particular is a joy, with Beck’s cascading intro leading to a tight and swinging original theme with piano and guitar in unison. Was this a marketing ploy? If it was all the record company had at the end of the session were the names of the tunes, for Beck and his Quartet completely transformed the songs into genuine strict jazz arrangements. Always a man of aesthetic integrity.
Whilst the older musician has The Beatles the twenty/thirty-something has Radiohead. Über Cool! Here’s a great example of using the British scenester vibe to make jazz more marketable to the youth. I’m not trying to diminish anyone’s artistic credibility here (listen to Jamie Cullum’s radio 2 show to appreciate how knowledgeable and enthusiastic he is about the British scene) but you have to admit, on it’s release, this was clever, clever marketing.
Using a recognisable tune to express your jazz sensibilities can even get you a Hollywood synchronisation. Yet again it’s Radiohead. Brad Mehldau, like TBP, has a reputation for updating the songbook, including his version of Exit Music which appeared on Unfaithful.
To more relevant times, and hopefully some form of conclusion to wrap up my ramblings (although can you give a definitive end to a stream of consciousness?) I remember seeing Robert Glasper at Charlie Wrights 4 years ago, enthralled by his Maiden Voyage vs In It’s Right Place mash-up. His touch, melodic sensibilities and natural post-Hancock style of improvising hooked me, and it has ever since. I can’t be the only one. He’s recently performed on Letterman to some jazz-world controversy (this is a fantastic blog. Scroll down to the comments to read my defence). His latest album has a cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit also, so maybe the next pantheon of standards are choosing themselves?
Even today (yes, literally today) I read a review where it was transparent the critic’s only knowledge of modern jazz was pop/rock covers. It was a small column in a free national newspaper, so obviously the writer spent the first paragraph showing-off his ignorance…
To my ears you have to be careful when approaching a pop song. Too much emphasis on the pop element you lose the respect of the jazz fans, too much jazz you don’t gain anyone. It’s a balancing act, a tightrope of aesthetics where the priority has to be honesty, because any desperation for the limelight becomes blatantly clear.