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Jazz and Pop Music

I was talking with a student the other day about how to inject some life and personality into basic melodic lines. This turned into a discussion about jazz(ish) covers of popular music. I think back to when I was in college, and lots of people – me included – would try to do covers of pop songs that just didn’t really come out very well.

I think a big part of the problem has to do with how we interpret the generally more horizontal melodies of this type of music. Good singers have so much subtlety about the way they deliver their lines, and if you transcribe those melodies and turn them into black and white notes on a page with (typically) pretty basic rhythms, you lose a lot. Regurgitating those written rhythms, especially when done by younger players, tends to result in lifeless, boring music.

So I thought I would put together a list of some of my favorite covers by jazz musicians of music from the popular realm. I’m specifically focusing on instrumental covers, because the point of the exercise was to have something for instrumentalists covering vocal lines to draw inspiration from. That doesn’t mean that I don’t love a good cover of a pop song with a vocalist, and just to prove that, here's a quick rundown of some of my favorite vocal jazz (or jazz-adjacent) covers of pop tunes:

Gretchen Parlato’s version of SWV's "Weak"; Robert Glasper Experiment’s covers of David Bowie’s “Letter to Hermione” [Glasper version] and The Human League’s “Human” [Glasper version]; Billy Childs and Becca Stevens’ version of Laura Nyro’s “The Confession”; Stevens’ version of Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin’ Bout You”; Tim Ries and Norah Jones' version of The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses”; and Herbie Hancock’s River songs, particularly “Amelia” with Luciana Souza, “Court and Spark,” with Norah Jones and “River” with Corinne Bailey Rae (Joni Mitchell's versions of those songs: one, two, and three).

But what are some of my favorite instrumental covers? Let’s look at a few.

Glasper’s version originated as a creative cover of “Maiden Voyage,” included on his debut album Mood in 2003. It was actually this “Maiden Voyage” cover that made me a Glasper fan – I bought his first two albums (all that was out at the time) based solely on hearing that version of that song performed by some friends of mine, and then I was a Glasper fanatic for the next several years.

Four years after Mood, Glasper released a similar version of the song, but one with more explicit references to the song that inspired it, Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place.” Radiohead has provided especially fertile ground for jazz covers over the years – there are some more examples below – but this is an interesting way of incorporating the harmonic hook of “Everything” into a jazz standard.

As I mentioned, Radiohead gets covered a lot by jazz musicians. Some of my other favorite versions of Radiohead songs include Brad Mehldau’s versions of “Knives Out” and “Exit Music” and Chris Potter’s version of “Morning Bell.”

I actually think “Wonderwall” is one of the best massively popular songs that’s out there. It’s just nicely constructed and catchy. Mehldau’s version, from a huge live double album (2006’s creatively titled Live), features a tricky bass line that doesn’t quite line up with everything else – it’s borderline math jazz for a bit – but Mehldau’s interpretation of the melody is top notch, and this is just a fun overall performance.

Mehldau perhaps deserves more credit than anyone (except maybe Herbie Hancock) for bringing the modern jazz cover into the spotlight. He has been doing terrific covers of pop songs throughout his entire career, and has even spent some time in that world – he played with Elliott Smith some in the early 2000s before Smith’s death, and there’s a great version of “Bottle Up and Explode!” on Mehldau’s compilation album Deregulating Jazz. Some other favorites: I mentioned the Radiohead covers above, also The Beatles’ “Blackbird” [of which there are good versions with trio and solo, which is true of the next two songs as well], Nick Drake’s “River Man,” and Sufjan Stevens’ “Holland.”

Another group with a long list in this category, The Bad Plus has a long track record of doing this kind of work, though it was definitely more of an emphasis earlier in their timeline. The Bad Plus turn “Life on Mars” into a quiet, contemplative number (at least until it hits the chorus), beginning with the melody in bass. I have always felt that this group was at their best when exploring the soft end of their dynamics – I think Dave King is maybe my favorite soft-volume drummer, and these slow burners that build over a time are the songs during which I most enjoy The Bad Plus.

Some standouts for me among the (many) other songs that The Bad Plus has covered include their versions of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” Rush’s “Tom Sawyer,” and Aphex Twin’s “Film.”

Not quite Radiohead here, but in the same universe, obviously. I’ve always loved this recording, from the effective if relatively simple decision to put a sheet of paper in the piano (at least, I think that’s what’s happening) to give it a little effect to the excellent interpretation of the melody and restraint by Scott.

I went through a phase with Scott (now known as Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah or just Chief Adjuah) so deeply that I have to visit his music with care, now – I overdid it. But this is one of my favorite tracks of his, and it highlights a wonderful song from the Radiohead universe that not nearly as many people know.

The opening track of my favorite Dave Douglas album (The Infinite), simple choices by Douglas (the bass clarinet is a really nice touch) and a great – if again simple – interpretation of the melody make this incredibly memorable. This is a perfect example of how you can play the melody pretty close to the way it was originally but you need to imprint your own style and personality into the playing to make it speak. It’s unquestionably and undeniably Douglas, and that’s why it works.

This is an absolutely incredible arrangement, done by Miguel Zenón for SF Jazz. I remember freaking out about it when it first hit YouTube, then I got the opportunity to play this arrangement for a friend’s recital when I was in grad school. It’s more an incredible arrangement than it is an incredible “interpretation” in the sense that I have kind of broadly been speaking of, but it’s absolutely worth mentioning here.

This isn’t the only banger from this project – check out the video for “Do I Do,” and listen to the rest of the album, too.

Björk is another artist that jazz musicians have turned to, though I think that her music is a little bit more difficult to cover, in general, than that of someone like Radiohead. But there are a few good examples. Her music is exclusively featured by Travis Sullivan’s Björkestra, I have also enjoyed include Jason Moran’s version of “Joga.” And I would be remiss if I did not mention my own version of “Unravel.”

But, I really like this version of “107 Steps,” which came originally from Selmasongs and is a weird, 2-and-a-half minute track.

A few other honorable mentions:

1 Comment

Jazz musicians often thrive on improvisation and reinterpretation, but when it comes to pop songs, there can be a tendency to approach them in a formulaic or rigid manner, which may lead to less expressive performances.

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