Nonstandards Fare: Jazz and Pop

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By Tom Deja

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When Bob Belden replaced Joe Lovano in Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd in 1979, he embarked on a long-running tour of Midwest high schools and Southern colleges. It didn’t take long for Belden to gauge the audience’s appetite. If Herman called for one of his old standards—say, “Four Brothers”—the students would go, “Huh?” But if Herman called for “Aja,” from his 1978 album of Steely Dan tunes, the kids would go nuts.

“A light bulb went off in my head,” Belden recalls. “Those Steely Dan tunes were fun to play, but more importantly they went over because the audience already knew them. That’s the beauty of playing stuff that’s familiar to the listener. You’re not introducing a new melody, so the melody can be a trigger for the audience and brings them along wherever you want to go. If you start playing, and people go, ‘Oh, that’s ‘Kid Charlemagne,’ you’re halfway there.

“Later, when my band was playing the Police’s ‘Roxanne,’ I realized that if Tim Hagans would play the hook on the trumpet now and then, we could do whatever we wanted for the rest of the song. That’s what I learned from Miles Davis: All you have to do is open the curtain a little and show them there’s a real guy back there. Then you quickly shut the curtain.”

“Back in the day,” says Reed Mathis of Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, “the songs that are now called standards were hits; everyone knew them. They were from shows that mainstream America knew. Sheet music sold as much as records, because people would sit around the piano and play these songs; hearing a virtuoso play them was a thrill because you had played them. Now you have to be a jazz insider to know the music before the 1960s.

“But now when we play a song by Björk, the faces in the audience light up. They’re hearing the lyrics in their head while we play, because they know the song. When we bring the refrain around again, it’s not just shapeless noodling; it’s something they’ve been waiting for. They’re improvising along with us in their heads, because they have the original tune in their heads like we have the original tune in our heads, and they’re anxious to know how we’re going to get to the next part that they know.”

Jazz has always borrowed pop songs and show tunes for just this reason: to take advantage of the audience’s knowledge of the melody, changes and groove so every new variation will have a reference point. But when Elvis Presley and Ray Charles revolutionized American music in the mid-’50s, the pop song changed dramatically. Suddenly, the changes were fewer and simpler; the rhythm was more likely to stomp than swing, and the melody became more repetitive. The rhythms had more energy and more prominence, and the lyrics were earthier, but what were jazz musicians supposed to do with that?

For the most part, they simply avoided the new songs. With a few exceptions, jazz musicians stuck with the show tunes and Great American Songbook numbers that had interesting changes and were easily adaptable to swing. But as that repertoire aged and became historical music rather than popular music, it lost its original advantage: familiarity to the audience.

It wasn’t until the ’90s that jazz musicians began tackling post-Elvis pop music in earnest; no longer were these rock and soul tunes merely an excuse for a cynical, we’re-only-in-it-for-the-money pop-instrumental album; they became the basis for interesting jazz improvisation. And in the ’00s, those tunes have become commonplace.

Both John Scofield and Shirley Horn have done albums devoted to Ray Charles songs. Cyrus Chestnut and James Carter recently did an album of songs by the indie band Pavement. Brad Mehldau has recorded Radiohead songs on six different albums. Herbie Hancock called his 1996 album The New Standard and provided examples from Peter Gabriel, Babyface and Simon & Garfunkel. Bill Frisell has recorded songs by John Hiatt, Johnny Cash and Madonna.

The latest album from the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey features tunes by the Flaming Lips, Brian Wilson and Neil Young. The Bad Plus has recorded numbers by Blondie, Aphex Twin and Nirvana. Cassandra Wilson has recorded songs by U2, Jimi Hendrix and Aretha Franklin. Belden has arranged and produced albums devoted to jazz interpretations of Sting, Prince, Carole King and the Beatles. Joshua Redman has recorded the work of James Brown, Stevie Wonder and Eric Clapton. And so on.

The question of whether post-Elvis pop songs can be adapted by jazz musicians has been settled. On the other hand, how those tunes can best be handled is still open for debate. Skeptics will point out, quite justifiably, that these rock and soul numbers still have fewer changes, more static melodies and more domineering rhythms than older jazz standards. Cassandra Wilson, for one, has no patience for such objections.

“Don’t talk to me about sophisticated harmonies,” she scoffs; “you can always change the chords. That’s what I do—I’m a jazz musician; I live for chord substitutions. If Ella Fitzgerald could turn a nursery rhyme like ‘A-Tisket a-Tasket’ into a jazz song, what can’t we use? Have you ever heard the original version of ‘Green Dolphin Street’? It’s your standard movie theme song, but someone said, ‘I can change these chords and make it interesting.’ That’s what John Coltrane did with ‘My Favorite Things.’ He said, ‘I like this melody, but I’ll put a minor feel in there and an Indian raga, then I’ll hold that pedal point forever.’”

As a vocalist, Wilson can take advantage of Bob Dylan’s and Joni Mitchell’s lyrics, but there’s more to their songs than just the words. After all, Redman, Frisell and Keith Jarrett have all done instrumental versions of Dylan compositions. Why? For one thing, there’s the emotional investment that both the performer and the audience have in the original versions. But there’s also the rhythmic and emotional push of pop music, the surging momentum that is the music’s greatest appeal but also the most difficult thing to transfer to a jazz arrangement.

It always comes down to the rhythm, doesn’t it? If you subscribe to the Lincoln Center school of thought and believe that music has to swing to be jazz, then you’re going to have a real problem with post-Elvis pop. If you try to substitute a breezy swing for the insistent pulse of the original, you’re tossing out what’s most interesting about the music. If you imitate a new pop song’s original rhythm too closely, you get locked into a repeating dance groove that takes away the flexibility for improvisation. This is the dilemma that fusion and smooth-jazz have stumbled over.

“Because the melody and the groove are so seductive in pop,” Scofield argues, “it’s so easy to go right over to the smooth-jazz side by mistake. You have to be able to say, ‘OK, this is not working; we’re not going to play this any more.’ For me, coming up with new stuff over a very simple vamp is harder, because you don’t have the harmonic material to draw from. Whereas playing over changes, you can solo on the harmonies and not worry about falling into smooth-jazz clichés or fusion clichés. It’s actually harder to do something with funk tunes; maybe that’s why people avoid them.”

“In most pop music, the drums are the metronome,” Belden says. “But backbeats aren’t rhythm; they’re time. If you take the backbeat away, it becomes jazz. If the backbeat’s there, it’s pop music with a jazz flavor. If you can hear where the backbeat should be but it’s not there, that’s jazz. That doesn’t mean you should swing it. If you take a pop song that’s focused on the backbeat and try to swing it, it can sound like Ray Coniff. You have to abstract it. When you play funk stuff, the groove should still be there but you don’t need to state every two and four.”

Jazz musicians have two strategies for dealing with the dictatorial demands of the post-Elvis groove: implication or complication, taking beats away or piling beats on. By removing some accents from a rhythm pattern, you open up room for variation on the rhythm while keeping the original design in mind. If you add a secondary pattern to the primary pattern, the original beat is still there but it has to contend with the push and pull of a counter-rhythm. You can make the groove thinner or thicker, but you can’t leave it the same if you want to transform it from pop into jazz.

Bill Frisell is a master of implication. On his Have a Little Faith album, for example, there’s a three-song stretch (between two Charles Ives pieces) where the guitarist offers up jazz instrumental versions of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman,” Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and Madonna’s “Live to Tell.” In each case, Frisell has drummer Joey Baron distill the original beat to an essence that implies the original pulse but leaves lots of room for alteration, by shuffling brushes on the Dylan tune, rim tapping on the Waters song or intermittent rattling on the Madonna number.

“I’ve always leaned more toward the impressionistic stuff,” Frisell admits. “Miles is still the epitome when it comes to space and stuff being slowed down. I like Charlie Parker, but I lean more to spaced-out stuff. It seems to fit with my bodily rhythms. I discovered that by implying some notes, the sound became bigger rather than smaller. And I learned to leave enough space so that when you do play something it has more weight. That’s something I’ve been working ever since.”

The recent tribute album That’s What I Say: John Scofield Plays the Music of Ray Charles exemplifies complication. On most tracks, drummer-producer Steve Jordan nails the original soul groove, but instead of playing to that rhythm, Scofield, organist Larry Goldings and bassist Willie Weeks play secondary rhythms that keep changing, injecting the unpredictability that jazz requires. Instead of asking the listener to imagine an implied beat, these arrangements ask the listener to accommodate competing beats.

“This stuff has a history, just like bebop,” Scofield insists. “I and a lot of other people have developed a style of playing over funk vamps that becomes a history in itself that’s derived from modal jazz, from the way Miles and Trane would play over a static bass figure. If it changes too much, it loses the funk. If it changes too little, it can sound like someone playing along with a drum machine.

“Part of that history is the development of jazz-funk drumming. It’s not just a simple rock beat; the drummers have developed a super syncopation within a groove and a juxtaposition between grooves. Sometimes it works and sometimes it becomes too intellectual, but people said that about Max Roach.”

The juxtaposition of layered beats is what hip-hop is all about, and jazz musicians who have grown up in the rap era have learned to mimic with their hands what programmers do on machines. On Jason Moran’s recent versions of Albert King’s “I’ll Play the Blues for You” and Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” you can hear the contending rhythms pile up like programmed tracks, even though they’re generated by piano, bass, drums and/or guitar. The sound reaches beyond hip-hop into new territory, turf that can only be described as jazz.

“For someone like me,” Moran claims, “it’s more natural to play jazz with a modern groove. The harder thing to do is to duplicate a swing feel from 1960, because I didn’t grow up with Roy Haynes or Elvin Jones. Hip-hop was to me what 1930s jazz was to the beboppers; it was the music all around you. Because I grew up with samples, splicing someone else’s voice or someone else’s music into a record seems so natural to me, and so does putting two different rhythm patterns together. I’ve been listening to that since I was 8.

“As you get older and get into contemporary art music, they have different terms for it, but it’s the same thing. The trend is definitely changing in jazz; a lot of bands are adopting a beat that counters what Philly Joe Jones did. It will be fascinating to see where it goes. I don’t know where it’s going, but I want to be around to see it.”

Just as the rhythm in post-Elvis pop can be overwhelming, the harmonic content can be underwhelming. There are exceptions—Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder, Donald Fagen, Joni Mitchell, Prince, Philip Bailey and Randy Newman have all written interesting changes in some songs—but for the most part rock and soul tunes work with familiar chords in predictable progressions. You can reharmonize the tune by substituting more interesting chords for the original progression. Or you can leave the chords alone and improvise modally on the melody and scales.

With the first approach, you can improvise on interesting changes of your own devising even as you trigger a memory in the listener of the original tune. But there’s a danger of making the arrangement so cerebral and cluttered that you lose the original’s energy and emotional directness—the reasons you were adapting the song in the first place. Those are the assets of improvisation, but there’s a danger of running out of interesting material after the first two trips through the verse and chorus.

“I make the harmonies work for me,” Chestnut explains. “Sometimes I’ll substitute chords, but sometimes I’ll strip it down to the lowest common denominator to clean the palate. I’ll make it very simple rather than throwing in the kitchen sink. Either way can work as long as it sounds like Cyrus Chestnut when I’m done.”

“If your purpose in adapting a song is improvisation,” Belden adds, “you concentrate on departure points. To do that, you need to find a song with enough material that you can change it. To dress up a simple I-IV-V, what’s the point? It’s impossible to improvise on ‘Little Red Corvette’; it’s like trying to do ‘Wipe Out’ as a jazz song; no matter how hard you work on it, it won’t work. Whereas Prince’s ‘The Ballad of Dorothy Parker’ has enough material to work with.

“I look for a tone center, a melody and maybe a good change that snuck in there somewhere. Sometimes I take the bridge and use that as a vehicle, because pop songwriters feel less constrained on the bridge, and they’ll try something different. Then I’ll substitute changes. Pop music is so bare-bones that it’s ripe for experimentation. Most of it is triadic; the most adventurous they get is a seventh. If you have a melody shape that’s nice and an implication of where the harmony is going, you can add chords over the top and below. On the Sting album, for example, I added changes to ‘Roxanne.’ On ‘Children’s Crusade,’ I kept his changes but augmented the chords; I added the butter note.”

When Herbie Hancock decided to record a set of post-Elvis pop numbers for his New Standard album, he asked Belden to help pick out the songs and make the arrangements. Hancock asked, “Has anyone in jazz done these tunes?” Belden answered, “No,” and Hancock exclaimed, “Great. Tabula rasa.”

“I’d put the songs in front of him,” Belden remembers, “and say, ‘Here’s the song and the chord changes; see if you can come up with better chords that that.’ He’d play something, and I’d go, ‘That’s great. How about this chord?’ I’d write down everything we tried so we didn’t lose anything, and after three or four hours, we’d have an arrangement. Some of the songs—like the Babyface song, even though it sounds great on the radio—were difficult to translate into jazz because the melody sounds more like a second-trumpet part than a solo part. So what did we do? Herbie changed the changes in every verse so the melody was in a different context each time.”

When Scofield was arranging Ray Charles numbers for his recent tribute album, he realized that most of them were blues and he could reharmonize them in much the same way that Ellington and Mingus reharmonized the blues of their day. Scofield could take a 12-bar, three-chord blues such as “I Don’t Need No Doctor” and turn it into a 12-bar, five-chord blues.

“Any time you have a note,” the guitarist explains, “you have a lot of harmonic possibilities, so I reharmonized a lot of the tunes, and that was part of the fun. But it’s easy to overdo it. I reharmonized ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You,’ for example, but I had to take out 50 percent of the new chords at the recording session because it didn’t work. You learn this technique for reharmonizing as a jazz musician, and it becomes a disease. ‘Why do I reharmonize? Because I can.’ It makes you sound amateurish when you’re too complicated.

“When an arrangement becomes overly intellectualized, it doesn’t allow the subconscious to come through, which is the goal in jazz. You can’t have changes for changes’ sake; the changes have to be cool, and sometimes fewer changes are cooler. Listen to Coltrane’s ‘Impressions’; he plays over one chord for half an hour, and it was great. So you can’t say, ‘Oh, that’s too simple.’ Musicians know something can be simple and right, and to me there’s nothing better.”

When legendary jazz producer Joel Dorn went to check out the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey at a club, the tune that he connected with was not one of the originals that dominated the set but rather a version of the old Tin Pan Alley number, “Alone Together.” It wasn’t that he disliked the originals, but the familiarity of the Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz tune extended a rope that he could grab hold of.

Dorn thought the band could reach a larger audience if they played standards. That album, The Sameness of Difference, featured not only older standards such as “Fables of Faubus” and “In Your Own Sweet Way” but also newer standards by rock ’n’ roll songwriters. But how could Dorn and the trio adapt the newer songs so they fit comfortably next to the older tunes?

“One of the songs we chose was Neil Young’s ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down,’ because the way he sings it is so intense and defiant,” explains bassist Mathis. “But if you take away his vocal and his lyrics, the melody and chords that are left aren’t all that interesting; they’re not as musically sophisticated as a Gershwin tune.

“So the challenge was, ‘How do we capture the emotion of the way he rendered it?’ The key for that tune and for a lot of these tunes is knowing when to bring the melody back. There’s a four-bar, four-chord turnaround that Neil used, and we had the piano play the chords as written, but each time we played it, the bass and drums got further and further out and then we come back together on that rousing chorus. That was very effective.

“On the other hand, the changes for Brian Wilson’s ‘Wonderful’ are closer to the traditional jazz standard than anything else we chose for the record. We tried blowing over the changes as if it were an Ellington tune, but that sounded like any other jazz track; it didn’t sound distinctive. So we arrived at this thing where we left the chords alone, improvised with dynamics rather than improvising with notes and let the melody tell the story. It brought out [pianist Brian Haas’s] classical background, because classical music is all about artfully rendering written melodies. Playing the Flaming Lips song or the Beach Boys song is his first chance to articulate a written melody in a poetic way.”

One of the most unlikely sources for jazz material is the lo-fi alt-rock band Pavement. Even by pop music standards, the group’s musicians have trouble holding together on Stephen Malkmus’s primitive compositions. But as they’re threatening to fall apart, the songs do reveal real melodies and genuine emotion. That’s why the owners of Brown Brothers Records commissioned the quartet of Cyrus Chestnut, James Carter, Ali Jackson and Reginald Veal to record Gold Sounds, an album of Pavement songs.

Chestnut’s new solo album, Genuine Chestnut, includes adaptations of Roberta Flack’s version of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (written by English folk singer Ewan MacColl), Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’” and Bread’s “If.” These are all post-Elvis pop songs, but Chestnut first heard “I’m Walkin’” on an Ella Fitzgerald record and rediscovered “If” while playing the Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen tune “Polka Dots and Moonbeams.” So the jazz possibilities of those two tunes were apparent from the start.

“One night I was playing ‘Polka Dots and Moonbeams,’” Chestnut remembers, “and I started hearing the melody for ‘If.’ I had first played ‘If’ at the wedding for my ninth-grade English teacher, and I had played it again right after I got out of Berklee when I was touring with the R&B singer Byrd Pressley. It’s in the same key as ‘Polka Dots and Moonbeams,’ so that night I bounced back and forth between the two songs seamlessly.

“I started doing that with my trio a lot ,and then one night I looked up at Mike [Hawkins, the bassist] and hollered ‘D-flat’ and we went into an R&B ballad rhythm. Soon we were playing the vamp from Earth Wind and Fire’s ‘That’s the Way of the World.’ And it all fit together, melodically, harmonically, emotionally. I didn’t sit down and say, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ It just occurred to me onstage, and rather than wait ‘til I could sit down and work it all out, I went for it right in the moment, just like Betty Carter taught me. That’s why I like to check all kinds of music, because there might be something in there that might take me to the next phase. If I lock myself in one genre, I deprive myself of that possibility.”

Because the most interesting and open part of a pop recording is usually the vocal, jazz musicians often try to latch onto the lead vocal and exaggerate the variations the singer is putting on the melody. And even if the jazz musician is doing a nonvocal version, the original lyric can provide clues for the emotional flavor of the new arrangement.

“Sometimes my interpretation will spring from the words,” Frisell says, “even if I’m doing it instrumentally. Thinking about the words will bring this inner meaning to the thing when I play it and hopefully that will come out when someone is listening. I used to play this John Hiatt song, ‘Have a Little Faith in Me,’ and when I played it I was actually hearing his voice and words and I was trying to mimic that. Or when I played Aretha Franklin’s ‘Chain of Fools,’ I totally tried to have my guitar be her voice.”

“It’s actually harder to get a handle on a George Gershwin song,” Mathis suggests, “because I don’t know as much about him as I do about John Lennon. I’ve heard Lennon sing ‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun,’ so I have a sense of his intentions for the song. But I haven’t heard Gershwin sing ‘I Got Rhythm,’ so I can only guess at his intentions. The Tin Pan Alley composers weren’t writing for their own voices; they were writing for everyone else. But pop songwriters since Dylan have been writing for their own personal voices—and you can hear those voices on records. That makes a difference.”

If nothing else, post-Elvis pop songs give jazz something it has desperately needed: a source of widely known material that hasn’t been done to death in jazz circles. It’s as if someone opened a new mine shaft in a region where all the other mines had been tapped out.

“There’s a lot of music out there still to be checked out,” Chestnut says. “If you do another version of ‘Summertime,’ even if you love the song, where can you go that hasn’t been done before? There are a lot of songs I stay away from, because they’ve been done so much, unless I can come up with a real radical approach.”

But it’s not enough to simply track down a cool pop tune and play it as a jazz instrumental. You have to find a way to open it up and make something new and personal of it. And you can’t do that by approaching a Stevie Wonder or Paul McCartney song the same way you would a Gershwin or Monk tune.

“Every time someone says, ‘Let’s play a Monk tune with a funk groove,’” Scofield says, “or ‘Let’s play a funk tune with Monk changes,’ it never works. Because the Monk tune loses the swing that was so much a part of it, and all those changes get in the way of the pleasure of the groove. Most versions of jazz-rock become smooth jazz, and then suddenly it’s no good.

“It’s all about musicality. When you have a clueless guy with a saxophone blowing over a vamp with those cheesy synthesizers, it can’t help but sound like the Weather Channel. But when Sonny Rollins plays ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ or Brad Mehldau plays ‘Martha, My Dear,’ it’s cool.”

Originally published in July/August 2006

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