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The Changes They Are a Timin’

Ben Sidran on the jazz connection with Bob Dylan

Ben Sidran by Roch Armando

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.

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.

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