10/23/09

The Changes They Are a Timin’

Ben Sidran on the jazz connection with Bob Dylan

Jazz artists are known for taking just about any song and putting their improvisational stamp on it. From the early days of bebop when artists like Coltrane or Rollins would cover a song like “My Favorite Things” or “I’m an Old Cowhand” to the present day, when songs by artists and bands like Nirvana, Radiohead and Pavement appear regularly on the recordings of young jazzers, the world of pop and rock has been a rich source of material for jazz players. So it might seem a bit peculiar that perhaps the most important and influential American songwriter of the last 50 years is rarely covered by jazz artists. We’re speaking, of course, of the prolific and revered Bob Dylan. Minus a cover of “My Back Pages” by Keith Jarrett and his trio some years back and concept albums by keyboardist Jamie Saft and Lindsey Horner, instrumental or even jazzy versions of Dylan’s material are very rare. Let’s just say that Mr. Zimmerman is not exactly a staple of the Real Book.

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Ben Sidran by Roch Armando

Now Ben Sidran, the noted composer and pianist, is releasing a complete album of Dylan songs and he calls it Dylan Different, coming out December 1 in the U.S. on his own Nardis label. Speaking on the phone from his home in Madison, Wisconsin, Sidran said that he had been doing a few Dylan tunes in his sets for years. “Afterwards, people would come up to me and say, ‘That’s great, I can understand the lyrics!’” A few years ago Sidran was artist-in-residence at University of Wisconsin in Madison and he developed a project called “Jews and the American Dream.” He included some of Dylan’s material in that project. But it was a recent stay in France that led to Sidran considering something more extensive with the mumbling dean of singer-songwriters. “Dylan’s music always seemed sort of haunted to me. We were recording with French musicians in this studio up a country road and somehow it just all made sense.” Sidran’s frequent collaborators Georgie Fame and Jorge Drexler provide a familiar backdrop to Sidran's signature piano and vocal style. Background vocals are provided by Amy Helm (daughter of drummer Levon Helm and member of popular folk band Ollabelle), with a horn section of Bob Malach (Stevie Wonder) on sax and Michael Leonhart (Steely Dan sideman and son of bassist Jay Leonhart) on trumpet.

Sidran is no newcomer to Dylan’s music and counts himself as one of his early fans. “I was working at a record store in Madison back in 1960, so I heard his first record when it came out. But it was Freewheelin’ that really caught my attention. We were selling boxes of that one.” He also knew some of Dylan’s close friends from the early years. “They all described him as very shy and inward-directed in those early days. It’s clear that this guy has a huge interior life.”

As a good friend of Van Morrison, Sidran had occasion to run across Dylan on the road, but the famously reclusive songwriter was surrounded by security and was giving off that “stay-away” vibe that has frozen many a devotee in his tracks. Sidran didn’t mind. “What are you going to say to him at this point that hasn’t been said?”

Sidran covers material from throughout Dylan’s history, though for the most part he borrows heavily from what many people consider his renaissance period—the 1964-1970 era. “I started out with a list of 20-25 songs. Then I started doing them and some of them just felt natural. I tend to want to talk when I sing so that works great with his stuff. Eventually I found a way to do these 12 titles that hung together, from ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ to ‘Everything is Broken.’ You know, I didn’t really bebop it. I just did my one thing. My own idiomatic style.” Indeed, Sidran, a singer-pianist heavily influenced by Mose Allison, stayed in that vein throughout the recording. And, yes, you can understand the lyrics. Sorry, Bob. Sidran said that Dylan’s own singular versions of his own material just made it easier to interpret them his own way. “It forces you to do it your way. That’s the challenge. How do you bring yourself to that table.”

Sidran had his own explanation as to why jazz people ignore Dylan’s songs. “It’s primarily because the changes don’t lend themselves to jazz playing. Look, you throw the lyrics away, what do you have left?” There are at least two jazz musicians who might disagree—Lindsey Horner and Jamie Saft. The former led a creative jazz group called Jewels and Binoculars that devoted itself to Dylan’s music. And Saft recently did Trouble, an album of Dylan material for John Zorn’s Tzadik label. But no question, these are exceptions, not the rule. Consider how many jazz covers there are of songs by Lennon-McCartney, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and even Becker-Fagen of Steely Dan.

One irony to this situation is that Dylan himself is a very knowledgeable and passionate jazz aficionado, as any listener to his "Theme Time Radio Hour" show for Sirius/XM could testify. His on-the-air riffs on artists such as Anita O’Day or Coleman Hawkins are alone practically worth the cost of the monthly subscription fee to the satellite service. Who knows? Perhaps Dylan Different will make an appearance on a future show. Here’s hoping.

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