Over the years, a number of jazz musicians have taken popular songs from the pop world and put their own spin on them. Whether that’s via reharmonization, reorchestration, playing with the rhythm and time, or a combination of all of these, they have reinvented these tunes to sound like something completely new. This speaks to the versatility of bands and musicians such as Brad Mehldau, The Bad Plus, Dirty Loops, and more. It also gives some of us a fresh perspective on tunes that we might have found to be cheesy or hacky. Today, we will discuss five of my favourites.
5. The Bad Plus – ‘Heart of Glass’
Legendary group, The Bad Plus, presents us with a really neat take on Blondie’s new wave hit, “Heart of Glass.” It starts off with pianist Ethan Iverson quoting the melody from the bridge while drummer David King kicks into a blazing jazz groove straight away. It is then followed by the pianist introducing the vocal melody in a wonderfully reckless way. Ethan takes the rhythm for the melody and totally lets the chips fall where they may, so to speak. This version really runs the gamut in terms of exploration and total freedom and I would definitely recommend it to any fan of the original.
4. Dirty Loops – ‘Prude Girl’ (Rude Boy Cover)
Up next, a band that was making heavy rounds on the internet a few years back. Bringing a modern, almost Stevie Wonder-like flair, they took a very poppy tune like this – and several others – and really went to town with it in just about every aspect. Their covers bring some absolutely virtuosic playing, incredible vocals, and wonderfully inventive arrangements. Here, they took a popular Rihanna song, “Rude Boy,” and made it something completely fresh. Now, I realize this is not exactly jazz at this point, but it definitely draws from jazz, particularly when it comes to the reharmonization of the tune. If you have not had the pleasure of listening to them, do yourself a favour and find them on YouTube right now!
3. Bill Frisell – ‘You Are My Sunshine’
So much can be said about Bill Frisell as a guitarist and as a musician. He is far and away one of the most unique voices in jazz. He is known for being a jazz player that always puts melody and texture before any sort of bop language. Frisell is also famous for his wonderful covers of popular classics; particularly Beatles tunes. Here, we will talk a bit about his cover of Johnny Cash’s “You Are My Sunshine.”
Bill Frisell, Paul Motian, and Ron Carter. Need I say more? It is interesting how they took such a loose approach here. The time is ethereally ambiguous and the harmony and textures employed by Frisell are of his typical genius. There never seems to be an established pulse in this recording and that is part of what makes it great for me. I would also like to add an honorary mention for his cover of The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
2. Brad Mehldau – ‘Blackbird’
What can be said about Brad Mehldau that has not been said already? For me, this guy is easily in the top 3 for jazz pianists anywhere. Mehldau is a rare combination of total technical master and heart-wrenching emotion. What he does with The Beatles’ classic, “Blackbird,” is nothing short of his usual genius. This one starts out with a rather straightforward approach by simply stating the melody. The harmony also shies away from exploring too much in the opening moments, giving it time to build. At about the 1:30 mark in the recording, Brad takes off and the groove changes to something much funkier. The band then proceeds to take off into all sorts of textures and dynamic ranges. The Beatles do seem to be a popular cover choice for musicians of all genres. These tunes are truly timeless.
1. Brad Mehldau – ‘Exit Music’
Yes, it’s Mehldau again. Can you tell I am a big fan? Brad seems to have an affinity for Radiohead’s music and it is easy to see why. He has done a number of covers of different major popular artists, but his Radiohead covers are by far my favourite. And of those, I would have to say that my favourite is Exit Music. His treatment of the melody is absolutely stunning and I especially love how the band decides to lay out for the opening moments of the tune. Don’t even get me started on the soloing. Mehldau really takes off here and shows us why he is revered as one of the best in the world. His ability to develop simple themes into blisteringly beautiful solos is unrivalled on any instrument, as is his total mastery of time in every sense.
So many wonderful musicians and bands have provided so many great remakes of old classics and modern hits. To have to pick favourites with this sort of thing almost seems criminal, but it’s at least worth the trouble to be able to consider the things you like about each version. I also really enjoy hearing people take to improvising over tunes that were not written with the intention of being a soloing framework. Their ability to make each song sound like something completely new with fresh harmony and groove is the reason why, for me, jazz musicians have the most interesting covers.