Familiar tunes reinvented by jazz masters
One of the glorious things about great jazz players is the way they play with melody. Since the birth of jazz, one of the mainstay ideas of the music has been to take well-known melodies – from pop, rock and folk – and put the jazz artist’s unique twist on it. What comes out is something at once both familiar and, when done well, also something completely new, invigorated and with the musician’s unique stamp on it. These reinterpretations offer a new way of listening to an old song.Here are a few recent jazz releases in which reinterpretation is a big part of the music. Roy Haynes, “Praise,” produced by Haynes (Dreyfus Records) For 56 years, Haynes has been a drumming force in the world of jazz, having worked with Lester Young and Bud Powell to John Coltrane and Miles Davis. With “Praise,” the 72-year-old Haynes proves that experience counts for the jazz player. Also with experience and respect comes the ability to tap into the gold mine of great players, and here Haynes comes up aces. Joining Haynes on “Praise” are top saxophonists Kenny Garrett and David Sanchez, plus pianist David Kikoski. Rounding out the lineup are bassist Dwayne Burno and Roy’s son Graham Haynes on flügelhorn and cornet.Among the tunes Haynes selects for “Praise,” and a centerpiece of the CD, is “Morning Has Broken,” made popular by Cat Stevens. Haynes gives the floor to pianist Kikoski for the trio rendition of the traditional hymn, while Haynes proves that a drummer need not overpower a song to leave an imprint on it. Chick Corea’s “Mirror Mirror” is a rhythmic showcase, and features the trio of horn players in addition to Haynes’ dazzling playing.”After Sunrise” is a Latin-flavored percussion workout, with percussionist Daniel Moreno lending some hands. The percussionists take center stage, along with Garrett, for Charlie Parker’s recognizable “My Little Suede Shoes.” The ensemble gets romantic for the piano-led “The Touch of Your Lips,” and the disc ends with a Haynes solo piece, “Shades of Senegal.”Haynes earns his “Praise.” His playing is tasty and distinctive, and he gets fine performances out of his sidemen. Joshua Redman, “Timeless Tales (for Changing Times),” produced by Redman; Mark Turner, “In This World,” produced by Matt Pierson; Brad Mehldau, “Songs: The Art of the Trio, Volume Three,” produced by Pierson (Warner Bros.) The first two albums, the saxophonists Redman and Turner share a common core of top young sidemen: keyboardist Brad Mehldau, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Brian Blade. On Mehldau’s CD, the pianist is joined by Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy.On his sixth release as a bandleader, the 29-year-old Redman devotes an entire disc to the idea that, to a jazz musician, a melody is never set in stone. Instead, a melody is a starting point, to be stretched and bent, stamped with a musician’s own style. The title suggests that the a great tune may be timeless, but it is also malleable.Redman’s quartet covers a wide terrain here, of some of the most beloved melodies and songs ever written, from the frequently covered Gershwin’s “Summertime,” Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean” to the more singular selections (Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” and Prince’s “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore”). Whereas on past releases, Redman aimed toward a mass audience with his playing and compositional style – adding elements of funk and groove to his jazz, and soloing frequently on a rock ‘n’ roll scale – here Redman brings in the audience with song selection.Here the playing is generally subdued, but warm and inventive. On Stevie Wonder’s “Visions,” Redman digs deep into the soul of the melody. Mehldau shows his impressive chops in a rhythmic take on Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays,” and Redman brings out the many moods of Joni Mitchell’s “I Had a King.”The version of “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” hints at Dylan’s melody occasionally, which is no surprise considering the original was such a lyric-driven song. But “Eleanor Rigby,” a melodic giant and one of Paul McCartney’s truest masterpieces, so lends itself to interpretation that Redman uses it as an open door.In between songs, Redman inserts brief, mood-setting interludes of his own creation, which add slightly to the overall disc. “Timeless Tales” is good, but Redman stands out more playing his own funked-up brand of jazz than he does interpreting melodies.”In This World” works more as a spotlight on Turner’s compositional skills; six of the nine tracks are his own.But an excellent take on the Beatles’ “She Said, She Said,” featuring Mehldau’s Fender Rhodes and guitar by Kurt Rosenwinkel, reveals the airiness of the song. A fast version of the pop standard “Days of Wine and Roses” lets Turner flex his soloing muscles.The CD shows that Turner has potential, but also room to grow, as a writer. Tunes such as “Lennie Groove” and the title track are thoughtful and sophisticated, but stay within fairly narrow ground. “Bo Brussels” breaks out of the mold, and allows plenty of room for extensive soloing.Mehldau’s “Songs,” a follow-up to his album of standards, “Live at the Village Vanguard,” balances five original compositions with five covers. Mehldau reaches even wider than Redman, going from standards such as “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and “Young at Heart” to Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film).” Mehldau’s trio brings a soft, classical touch to it all. Henry Kaiser & Wadada Leo Smith, “Yo Miles!” produced by Kaiser & Chris Muhr (Shanachie) This two-disc set is free, funky electric jazz played out on the skinny limbs. Electric guitarist Kaiser and trumpeter Smith, both stalwarts of the avant-garde, take on Miles Davis 1973-’75, easily the most obscure and out-there years of the career of the late trumpeter. And Kaiser and Smith – joined by a group of players that includes organist John Medeski, a pair of lap-steel guitarists and a host of guitarists, saxophonists and more – attempt to bring as much experimental spirit to the music as Davis did. Smith even breaks out the rarely used electric wah-wah trumpet for several tunes.For the most part, “Yo Miles!” is big fun and a big success. On tunes like the 13-minute “Agharta Prelude,” a centerpiece of Miles’ mid-’70s performances, Smith and the saxophonists blow behind a driving rhythm that explodes into a mind-melting musical nova. Other numbers – the 35-minute improvisational launchpad “Ife,” and the equally long “Themes From Jack Johnson – are similarly sprawling and, if they stall at times, they are also infused with a rare energy at others. “Maiysha,” which ends the first disc, is a lighthearted break from the cacophony, almost soothing with its light, steady beat and lap-steel guitars.”Calypso Frelimo,” which opens the second disc, is based around a short, repeated bass line, giving the tune a hypnotic power. The one composition not written by Davis is Smith’s “Miles Dewey Davis III – Great Ancestor,” which begins with a slow trumpet-and-piano piece before the guitars and drums join in.
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Amid the pre-Thanksgiving gloom of grim pandemic news here in Aspen, across Colorado and the mountain west came a small but significant dose of hope in the unlikely form of an Aspen Music Festival and School announcement.