The always insightful Marc Myers recently listed 8 Hip Rockers on his invaluable JazzWax blog, a list of his eight favorite jazz versions of rock hits that are sure to provoke much commentary.
Marc's eight favorite jazzed up rock tunes are The Doors’ “Light My Fire” by Wynton Kelly, The Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand” by Grant Green, The Fifth Dimension’s “Up Up And Away” by Sonny Criss, Rolling Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper” by Joe Pass, Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” by Gerry Mulligan, Chicago’s “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is” by Grant Green, Simon & Garfunkle’s “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” by Paul Desmond and Skeeter Davis’s country hit “End of the World” by Bud Shank.
Surely an interesting selection, particularly the Grant Green covers…but none are highlights in my book.
“Jazz versions of rock hits usually bomb,” Marc writes. “In most cases, the results sound like music played at a wedding reception, convention center or worse.” I couldn’t agree more. But the reason for this was often because these jazz guys were forced to record this music to sell records. The Gerry Mulligan album title says it all: If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em.
Jazz players in the late 1960s had little choice but to record rock covers. Their records, as the major labels convinced them, wouldn’t have sold otherwise. Keep in mind, this is when the whole “jazz is dead” debate began and not only were jazz sales declining but record companies quickly discovered what was selling. It was rock and roll.
So they all did their take on a type of music that either had no appeal to them or just didn’t make sense to them. Duke Ellington recorded AM radio hits of the day. Count Basie recorded a whole album of Beatles covers and another whole album of James Bond songs. Thelonious Monk actually walked out on a lucrative contract at Columbia Records because he refused to do an album of Beatles covers. I bet Brubeck parted ways with Columbia after years of hits at the label for pretty much the same reasons.
But some jazz players of the 1960s actively liked and embraced rock and roll. These were usually the younger players and the ones that recorded some of the finest covers of the music. They weren’t doing it for the money (at least not at the time). They were doing it because they believed in the music and truly thought they could do something with these new standards. And most of these players simply felt that passé bop and too oft-covered Tin Pan Alley hits no longer had any meaning to this new generation of music listeners.
With that in mind, here are eight of my choices for the best jazz versions of rock hits. But I think it’s worth pointing out that these aren’t just decent covers of basic three-chord songs. They are imaginative considerations of some beautifully melodic material, all of which was very strong in the first place:
Hang On Sloopy (originally performed by The McCoys on Hang On Sloopy) – Ramsey Lewis from Hang On Ramsey (Cadet, 1965), with Ramsey Lewis (p); Eldee Young (b); Issac “Redd” Holt (d) also Golden Hits (Columbia, 1973), with Ramsey Lewis (p, key); Cleveland Eaton (b); Morris Jennings (d).
A Day In The Life (originally performed by The Beatles on Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band) – Wes Montgomery (A&M/CTI, 1968), with Wes Montgomery (g); Herbie Hancock (p); Ron Carter (b); Grady Tate (d) Ray Barretto, Jack Jennings, Joe Wohlez (perc) and orchestra arranged and conducted by Don Sebesky
Ferris Wheel (originally performed by Donovan on Sunshine Superman) - Gabor Szabo from Dreams (Skye, 1968), with Gabor Szabo, Jimmy Stewart (g); Louis Kabok (b); Jim Keltner (d); Hal Gordon (perc); Tony Miranda, Ray Alonge, Brooks Tillotson (fhr); Gary McFarland (p,arr); Julius Schacter (vln); George Ricci (cello).
Both Sides Now (by Joni Mitchell, popularized by Judy Collins on Wildflowers) – Gabor Szabo from Gabor Szabo 1969 (Skye, 1969), with Mike Melvoin (org); Gabor Szabo, Francois Vaz (g); Louis Kabok (b); Randy Cierly (el-b); Jim Keltner (d,perc); George Ricci (cello); Gary McFarland (arr).
Get Back (originally performed by The Beatles on Let It Be) – Gary McFarland from Today (Skye, 1970), with Hubert Laws (f); Curtis Fuller (tb); Sam Brown (g); Ron Carter, Chet Amsterdam (b); Grady Tate, Sol Gubin (d); Airto (perc); Gary McFarland (vib, vcl); George Ricci (cello).
Guinnevere (originally performed by Donovan on Sunshine Superman) – Miles Davis from the 1979 LP Circle in the Round and the 1998 CD The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions, with Miles Davis (tp); Wayne Shorter (ss); Bennie Maupin (bass cl); Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea (el-p); John McLaughlin (g); Dave Holland (el-b); Khalil Balakrishna (sitar); Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette (d); Airto (perc).
It’s Too Late (originally performed by Carole King on Tapestry)-Johnny Hammond from Breakout (Kudu, 1971), with Danny Moore (tp); Grover Washington, Jr. (ts,arr); Hank Crawford (as); Johnny Hammond (Smith) (org); Eric Gale (g); Johnny Williams (el-b); Billy Cobham (d); Airto Moreira (perc).
Stones Medley (Backstreet Girl/Lady Jane/Mother’s Little Helper) (originally performed by Rolling Stones)-Charles Lloyd from Geeta (A&M, 1973), with Charles Lloyd (ts); Blackbird (g); Celestial Songhouse (b); Transcending Sonship (d, perc).
For more contemporary fare, it shouldn’t be forgotten that both pianist Brad Mehldau and organist Dr. Lonnie Smith have repeatedly provided bracing covers of some of rock’s lesser known gems.
Brad Mehldau’s programs in particular are artful concoctions that balance originals and standards with old rock classics (The Beatles, Paul Simon) and some of its newer lights (Radiohead). To sample the genius of it all, check out Largo (Nonesuch, 2002), Anything Goes (Nonesuch, 2004) or Day Is Done (Nonesuch, 2005).
Dr. Lonnie Smith has also proven to work miraculous wonders on unusual and well-done rock covers, from his two brilliant Jimi Hendrix cover albums Foxy Lady (Venus, 1994) and Purple Haze (Venus, 1994) to his appearances on Javon Jackson’s cover of Frank Zappa’s “Zoot Allures” (from the 1996 Blue Note album A Look Within) and Cyrus Pace’s cover of The Beatles’ “Taxman” (from the 2004 CD Straight From The Source).