By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Three years ago, a March evening in Oakland, Calif., and the Brad Mehldau Trio is playing a set as mercurial as the weather. The club is Yoshi's, a terribly trendy sushi bar and nightclub, and Mehldau is peaking as his generation's officially respectable ivory tickler ("the Bill Evans of his generation" we critics wrote, ad infinitum). The three staid but stupendous players dabble in original compositions and standards, or covers — whichever term you use for someone else's song. But when Mehldau bridged two songs by calling them "classics," the choice of word elevated many brows in the room. Cole Porter's "Anything Goes"? Sure, classic. But the next tune was Radiohead's "Everything in Its Right Place."
Mehldau's accomplishment — and the reason he continues to garner praise — is that both performances melded together seamlessly in that set. Even on his new CD, "Day Is Done" (Nonesuch), which features only one original composition, he's still doing it. He opens with another Radiohead song ("Knives Out"), follows it with Burt Bacharach ("Alfie"), Lennon and McCartney ("Martha My Dear," "She's Leaving Home"), Nick Drake (the title cut). But regardless of who penned them and how impossibly far apart they might be stylistically and historically — he owns the tunes. They're not played for yuks, or irony. It's not Paul Anka crooning a Nirvana hit with a wink; it's a consummate pro deconstructing a melody and making it transcend every classification in radio programming and record shop bins. And that's jazz.
But what of the term "jazz standard," which (to Mehldau's generation) has come to mean Gershwin show tunes, Sinatra chestnuts? And where does a young jazz hotshot draw the line between exploding the musical canon and simply being an erudite cover band?
"For me, as a performer, personally, the question of what constitutes a 'standard' or a 'cover' is irrelevant in terms of its viability as a vehicle for my interpretation and improvisation," Mehldau said in a recent interview. "I'm aware that if someone recognizes a song, it's an 'in' for them. It will make them perk up their ears and perhaps draw them into what I'm doing more quickly. But what will hold them is what I do with the song — the way I improvise on it, the way I shape the melody and, most importantly in a trio situation, the way the band communicates together, and the overall individual texture sonically of a given song. These factors are aesthetic more than anything else. Aesthetics for me rest more on musical attributes — melody, harmony, rhythm and timbre — and in this understanding, the choice of material is extra-musical."
But it's that "in" with audiences that keeps these guys coming back to including and sometimes spotlighting other artists' songs in their repertoires. Look at all the boomer rockers (Rod Stewart, Carly Simon, etc.) banking albums full of selections from the "great American songbook." In a roundabout way, these discs are helping young jazz players challenge the contents of that mythical book.
Take, for instance, the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, a more manic trio bashing out some the wildest, most innovative young jazz on the current scene. The band's new disc, "The Sameness of Difference," is also top-heavy with covers. Its previous 12 CDs have been nearly all original creations, but new producer (and jazz business legend) Joel Dorn encouraged the guys to get outside themselves. After all, that's what hooked him.
"I caught 'em at Tonic downtown [in New York], and they played all their own material. It was cool. The musicianship with these guys is astounding," Dorn said last week from New York. "But I think they encored with 'Alone Together,' and it was a very unique version, and I thought, 'If they can do that unique a version of that song, I'll bet they can do things equally as exciting with other material.' It's not like this album is 'The Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey Goes Hollywood' or 'Way Out West.' These guys just really did something that rang a bell in my head, and that's what made me want to work with them."
That decision had a little weight to it; Dorn has been in "retirement" for years, producing archive discs and box sets, and he rarely returns to the studio unless there's a "wow" factor. Dorn joined Atlantic Records in the late '60s and produced hit discs for a variety of jazz and jazz-leaning artists, including Les McCann, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Eddie Harris and Roberta Flack ("Killing Me Softly," etc.).
"It was that song ['Alone Together'] that hooked him," JFJO pianist Brian Haas said of Dorn. "I think so many people have this experience with jazz, too — even a legendary pro like Joel. He came and heard us and perfectly respected us, but it was only when we played something he understood, a template he recognized and could frame us with, that he paid full attention. He came back a second time and liked everything. It was that one tune that opened him up to the possibility of the band and, really, the music. Look at [John] Coltrane's 'My Favorite Things.' That's what put him on the map. That's how people tune in."
• • •
The Jacob Fred guys (Haas, drummer Jason Smart, bassist Reed Mathis — Fred is a made-up moniker) tour constantly, relentlessly. When we caught up with them for an interview last week, they were in the van heading through New York to New Hampshire. In the background, on the van's stereo, Mehldau's new album was playing.
"Brad's got a new drummer, and he's really amazing," Mathis gushed about the Mehldau Trio's new Jeff Ballard. "He can swing and open up, but most of the time he's playing backbeats. They're stretching out and improvising like they always have, but it has this dance-oriented drive to it. It does some cool, weird things to these standards."
Standards, eh? So in the 21st century, when "oldies" radio has caught up to Hall & Oates and Earth, Wind & Fire, does that mean "standards" have moved forward on the timeline as well?
"It's a funny word," Mathis said. "It can mean a lot, just like 'jazz' can."
"Dorn told us, 'You guys are completely not jazz — and that's what makes you more jazz than anything else I've ever heard.' Then he paused and said, 'It's like the sameness of the difference," Haas said. Thus, the new album title.
"But, you know, Cole Porter was the equivalent to Radiohead in his day," Mathis said. "He was writing catchy hooks that you can't forget, but with weird chords that sounded wrong if anyone else tried them. Listen to Brad, he really pulls that stuff off. His playing is so beautiful. He could be playing 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' and you could listen to it for hours. He extracts the guitars and the lyrics and says, 'Hey, check out this composition.'"
Precisely, said Mehldau. "I do not get any more or less excited about playing a song because of what era it comes from," he said. "Each song — and that includes originals of my own, which make up a fair portion of my performances — exists in its own locus and is fairly malleable in terms of the possibilities of interpretation. This is where the jazz aspect comes in. There are more-inspired performances and less-inspired ones, and the level of inspiration is not tied to what song we're playing.
"What constitutes an inspired performance is to what extent the players surprise themselves and the audience. That element of surprise runs contrary to a notion of doing justice to a particular song. It has to do more, in fact, with forgetting about the song at a certain point and surrendering to the improvisation. The song becomes a pragmatic vehicle."
Even Mehldau comes back to the Coltrane example. "Coltrane's performances of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 'My Favorite Things' or 'Chim-Chim-Cheree' from 'Mary Poppins' are a constant for me," he said in a statement upon release of "Day Is Done" in September. "The way Coltrane's band blows up those songs into something great and dangerous, on this huge scale, that's a real guiding light for me in terms of what I'm trying to achieve in a band performance. The original tune is referred to, but it's raised up and becomes transfigured, giving the listener a transcendent experience."
• • •
Indeed, what these players danced around was the simple fact that the choice of song is largely irrelevant. Just give the jazz cat a melody, any ol' melody, and let them knead it into their particular hot, nourishing stuff.
Richard Niles, the host of "New Jazz Standards" on BBC's Radio 2 in England, summed it up in a recent e-mail exchange: "[Standards] have always been drawn from 'pop.' In the hands of a great jazz musician, playing a song by Gershwin is no different from playing a song by Fleetwood Mac."
The Jacob Fred guys knew this, but they were resistant to it — at least, they were hesitant to record an album dominated by other people's songwriting credits. In fact, they weren't sure about most of Dorn's ideas at first.
Most of the trio's discs have been live recordings, but its last studio effort, "Walking With Giants" (2004) is indicative of how these three work. They spent months recording, re-recording, overdubbing, tweaking, tinkering and overthinking. The results were still invigorating, but they lacked the crackle of the band's live energy. When they headed to New York to work with Dorn, they assumed another lengthy road was ahead.
"We finished our first day and expected to keep recording, but Joel walks out and says, 'Nah, it's done, babies,'" Haas said, still clearly flabbergasted.
Nor did the band want to record so many covers. But Dorn insisted, and the band is now pleased with the results. "It did let us do our thing, and show that our thing is beyond our own writing," Haas said. "I mean, this is the way the universe and the world continue to shrink and shrink. Every new melody is in some way derivative of a hundred old melodies, and the way we use tunes is as bare skeletons for different types of explorations."
"It's kind of the 'in' thing for modern jazz groups to play pop music," added Mathis, who opens "The Sameness of Difference" with a fluid reading of Jimi Hendrix's "Have You Ever Been to Electric Ladyland?" "Mehldau and such are staking their reputations on it, which is fine. It sounds a little gimmicky sometimes at first, and we wanted to avoid that as much as we could. I wanted to play our selections as seriously as we would play Beethoven.
"So we had to pick songs we really connect with. The Hendrix song is so deep in our psyche, and the Bjork song ['Isobel'] takes me right back to high school, to some fundamental feelings. When the Flaming Lips album came out ['The Soft Bulletin,' from which they pulled 'The Spark That Bled'], we listened to that twice a day in the van. It was thrilling to see some of this come out of our own instruments, and these became more intense when we started playing them in performances. The audience picks up on it. You can feel them go 'a-ha!' and connect more deeply to what you're doing."
Haas agrees: "Mehldau, all this stuff — it's part of a canon to reinterpret melodies. It doesn't matter where they come from anymore. The wisdom is in taking one and putting it into a new context. That's what we do every night."
GREAT MOMENTS IN JAZZ COVERS OF POP SONGS
Louis Armstong, "Stardust"
Armstrong in 1929 was a pop star himself, but this chestnut was a winner just before his reading of "Ain't Misbehavin'" became a jukebox hit.
Benny Goodman, "Sometimes I'm Happy"
A pop song that, in 1935, Goodman made swing, swing, swing.
Charlie Parker, "Just Friends"
In the '50s, Parker sought to record his sax with a string section. Fans worried, but his reading of this tune on "Charlie Parker with Strings" is considered by fans — and Bird himself — as one of his best performances.
John Coltrane, "My Favorite Things"
Coltrane's 1960 reading of Maria's ditty from "The Sound of Music" sounds like a quaint idea — until you hear what he does with it.
Miles Davis, "My Funny Valentine" and "All of You"
Miles' live concert album in 1964 was stuffed with standards — and set a few.
Ramsey Lewis, "The 'In' Crowd" and "Hang on Sloopy"
Is it pop? Is it jazz? Chicago's Ramsey Lewis did a little of both in 1965, and audiences ate it up.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.