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New standards
Is jazz catching up with contemporary pop?

A soprano sax squeals into its farthest upper reaches, descends into bluesy cadences punctuated with Bechet-like vibrato and shake, then does some fancy arpeggiating. A soulful organ chord enters with a drumbeat and cymbal smash; then everyone shifts into a slow groove with a backing vocal chorus: "Do-do-dowee-oowee, do-do-dowee-oowee, wee-ah!" It sounds eerily familiar . . . could it be? No! But yes, Virginia, itís all too true: Pavementís indie-rock slacker anthem "Cut Your Hair" played as an instrumental (not counting the oowees) by a jazz band.

And not just any jazz band. This is multi-reed monster James Carter with pianist Cyrus Chestnut and the rhythm team of bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Ali Jackson. The saxophonist and the pianist have been jazz stars since the mid í90s, Veal is a long-term Wynton running buddy, and Ali Jackson has just taken the drum chair in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. "Cut Your Hair" is one of eight tracks on the new Gold Sounds, the first release on the New YorkĖbased Brown Brothers label. Itís the brainchild of Brown Brothers honchos Jake Cohn and David Elkins, who came up with the idea of bringing expert musicianship to bear on a band known for brilliant songwriting and sloppy execution. In the process, two audiences would meet on common ground: the jazz snobs and the indie-rock purists.

If you think the idea sounds like a hopeless criticsí equation (Pavement nerd rock meets Wynton-era jazz perfection), or as one of my colleagues put it, "middlebrow," youíre not alone. Rolling Stone quoted Gold Soundsí liner-note question, "What album would we want to buy which doesnít exist?" and concluded, "If your answer is Ďhot young jazz players covering a grab bag of Pavement songs,í you probably donít exist yourself."

But the existence of Gold Sounds (none of the players previously knew who Pavement were) dramatizes a larger issue in the jazz world: the absence of new "standards." That is, contemporary pop songs adapted by jazz musicians as standard repertoire to improvise on.

The drought of such standards is, at this point, about 50 years old. The wealth of whatís become known as the Great American Songbook of the pre-rock-and-roll era once served, in critic and songwriter Gene Leesís phrase, as the "lingua franca of the art form." Everyone knew, if not the lyrics, then the melody and the chord changes to "I Got Rhythm," "How High the Moon," "I Canít Get Started," and a gazillion others ó the pop music of the day.

But rock was not the stuff of jazz improvisation. The simple three- or even two-chord harmonic patterns just didnít provide enough fodder for an improviser to dig into. So the Great American Songbook gradually became the equivalent of the standard repertoire that classical musicians rely on.

Which isnít to say thereís no new material in jazz ó jazz musicians of all stripes are writing new music, from mainstream to avant-garde, and instrumental pieces by Ellington, Monk, Coltrane, and others have themselves become standard. But as Lees points out (his essay is in the Oxford Companion to Jazz), popular song was one of jazzís links to the popular audience ó the familiar with which jazz musicians led that audience to the new. Think of Miles Davisís transformation of "Bye Bye Blackbird," or John Coltraneís take on Rodgers & Hammersteinís "My Favorite Things."

But except for Milesís effective take on Cyndi Lauperís "Time After Time" in 1985, or Chet Baker doing Elvis Costelloís "Almost Blue" late in his career, what else was there in new standards after 1965?

And yet, the trickle has grown lately. In 1998, Joshua Redman mixed American Songbook masters (Berlin, Gershwin, Kern, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hammerstein) with rock-era icons (Dylan, Lennon & McCartney, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Prince) on Timeless Tales for Changing Times (Warner Bros.). Don Byron recorded boogaloos by funk outfit Mandrill and played the Four Topsí "Reach Out" in concert. Singer/pianist/composer Patricia Barber has done the Beatlesí "Blackbird," Bill Withersís "Use Me," Sonny Bonoís "The Beat Goes On," and smatterings of Joni Mitchell. Singer Karrin Allyson has won approving reviews for her 2004 Wild for You (Concord), with its soft-rock mix of Cat Stevens, James Taylor, et al. Brad Mehldau keeps returning to Nick Drake and Radiohead. Bill Frisell has his C&W outings. And of course thereís the Bad Plus, with everything from Nirvana to Queen in their book.

In the wake of all this, Gold Sounds might represent a watershed moment. Right behind it is Jacob Fred Jazz Odysseyís The Sameness of Difference (Hyena), with Hendrix ("Have You Ever Been to Electricladyland") and the Beatles ("Happiness Is a Warm Gun"), among others. And Rolling Stones saxophonist Tim Ries has released The Rolling Stones Project (Concord).

The problem is that whereas earlier jazz masters subverted pop with their innovations, the current batch of covers tends to be conventional and tame. Milesís "Bye Bye Blackbird" was an ultra-hip take on a 1926 hit for Eddie Cantor. Coltraneís 1960 "My Favorite Things" (which, as Lees points out, was then being sung on Broadway by Mary Martin) was one of his boldest experiments. "The weird cover," as Don Byron once told me, is a radical "act of jazz." Even the accessibility of Coleman Hawkinsís 1939 "Body and Soul" was deceptive. Hawkins later recalled that he continued to get requests for something with "melody," like "Body and Soul," even though, as he was quick to point out, "We didnít play the melody once" in that record. The "weird cover" may have been an "act of jazz," but subversion didnít mean desecration. These musicians were, as the composer George Russell has said of his own music, trying to make "a classical music from the rhythms of our time."

So now we get a big band called the Björkestra, which to judge by the few recorded examples Iíve heard makes perfectly fine, perfectly conventional big-band jazz out of one of the most idiosyncratic singer-songwriters in pop. The most audacious appropriation of contemporary pop repertoire comes from Sinatra-protégé crooner Paul Anka. His Rock Swings on the Verve jazz imprint makes you sorry that the Chairman never lived to do his own lounge-lizard take of David Lee Rothís "Jump." The albumís arrangements of big band and strings are state-of-the-art, and on the whole I think I prefer Ankaís version of "Black Hole Sun" to Soundgardenís. Ankaís most notorious remake, though, is "Smells like Teen Spirit," which for a while you can almost believe. "Iím worst at what I do best/And for this I do feel blessed," he sings, nailing those sibilants in true Frank fashion. It almost makes you want to forgive him for mosquito and libido ó but then, of course, he has to elide those final screams of "a denial!"

And thereís the rub. You can turn anything into "jazz," but will it still mean something when youíre done? David S. Wareís "The Way We Were" is harrowing. The Bad Plus and Sex Mob (with their James Bond/Albert Ayler routines) are passing off novelty as relevance. Barber, on the other hand, knows how to adapt pop to her urbane irony, and to "smarten up" pop songs, as she once told me, in arrangements that work for jazz improvisers. Drake and Radiohead are perfectly suited to Mehldauís dense, brooding romanticism. Ries, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, and the Gold Sounds gang at least for the most part make real jazz without going schlocky.

About Timeless Tales (which had its own little "Favorite Things" tribute in its soprano-sax waltz of "Eleanor Rigby"), Redman said, " Iím not trying to hold up these songs as standards that jazz musicians should play . . . I do believe that there is a lot of modern popular music out there ó or at least a little modern popular music out there ó that is completely valid for jazz interpretation. In that sense, the validity of the music is determined by the musicianís creativity and by the musicianís desires, not by any kind of artificial standard of what is or isnít proper material."

But a "standard" after all, is something that gets played regularly, by a community of musicians. And I donít know anyone whoís heard even Redman play "The Times They Are A-Changiní " lately.

Issue Date: November 18 - 24, 2005
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