THE DOZENS: JAZZ PERSPECTIVES ON THE BEATLES by Matt Leskovic

The Beatles

During the 1960s, jazz became more stylistically diverse than ever. Conventional norms were assertively challenged and the boundaries of what was accepted as “jazz” were stretched and blurred. This movement, like any avant-garde artistic endeavor, faced its fair share of harsh denigration. Conservatives viewed jazz as a pure and autonomous art; the infusion of other styles was seen to dilute its defining elements, compromise its musical integrity, and endanger the preservation of its identity.

Due to its commercialism, rock was perceived to be a major threat to jazz’s purity. Though the cross-pollination of jazz and rock was eschewed by many musicians and critics, some eagerly welcomed the combination. In a 1968 Downbeat article, critic Dan Morgenstern stated, “If rock offers a bridge, jazz would be foolish not to cross it.” Many musicians traversed that very bridge to find a wealth of potential in the hybridization of the two distinct styles.

In the 1960s, the music of the Beatles was as well respected as it was wildly popular. While the Fab Four collectively pushed the boundaries of rock and set the bar for decades to come, each individual member played a revolutionary role as well. Paul McCartney’s linear, contrapuntal bass playing freed the bass guitar from its normal role as timekeeper and introduced its potential as an integral melodic element in a pop group. George Harrison’s interest in Eastern spirituality and Indian music influenced an entire generation and ushered in the psychedelic rock era. Ringo Starr’s drumming, though deceptively simple, added yet another layer of compositional intricacy to the Beatles’ already dense music, his parts often so perfect it is impossible to imagine anything different. And John Lennon, the most forward-thinking of them all, was the group’s architect and catalyst—as he went, so did the Beatles.

As the music of the Beatles grew increasingly complex, more jazz artists were compelled to tap into and investigate these brilliant compositions, beautiful melodies, divine harmonies, and unconventional harmonic and metric complexity. The Beatles’ music is truly timeless, as demonstrated by the new jazz generation’s continued interest in their songbook. Throughout the years, there have been successes and failures; many jazz Beatles covers are throwaways or lame attempts to cash in on a popular hit. Some sound like they were arranged in a few seconds at the end of an exhausting late-night session, and others feature insipid instrumentalists buried in sheet music bored by the absence of 16th notes and flatted 13ths. However, for each disappointment there are many other highly enjoyable performances that will satisfy, inspire and remind us that great music knows no boundaries. Here are twelve highlights from jazz’s Beatles book.


Dr. Lonnie Smith: Eleanor Rigby

Track

Eleanor Rigby

Artist

CD

Turning Point (Blue Note 11423)

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Musicians:

Dr. Lonnie Smith (organ), Lee Morgan (trumpet), Bennie Maupin (tenor sax), Idris Muhammad (drums),

Julian Priester (trombone), Melvin Sparks (guitar)

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Composed by Lennon/McCartney

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Recorded: Englewood Cliffs, NJ, January 2, 1969

Albumcoverlonniesmith-turningpoint

Rating: 85/100 (learn more)

When dipping into the Beatles bag, "Eleanor Rigby" might be the tune that jazzers grab onto most, and for good reason. It's one of their most unforgettable melodies, and its simple, minor harmony can be vamped, lending itself as easily to cerebral modal exploration as to blues-inflected blowing. Lonnie Smith chooses Option #2, transforming Paul McCartney's solemn tale of the lonely Ms. Rigby and desolate Father McKenzie into a soul-jazz boogaloo jam. The mysterious ambiance created by the intro's billowing trills carries over into Smith's serpentine organ melody, which slithers around punctuated horn interjections. After two verses, Muhammad kicks in his famous boogaloo beat, and young Maupin steps up with an economical, bluesy chorus—so laid-back he sounds like he's in slow-motion! Smith plays the blues with conviction, unfurling an endless supply of licks atop Sparks's wildly enthusiastic comping.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Buddy Rich: Norwegian Wood

Track

Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)

Artist

Buddy Rich (drums)

CD

Big Swing Face (Blue Note 27989)

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Musicians:

Buddy Rich (drums),

Bobby Shew, Charles Findley, John Scottile, Yoshito Murakami (trumpets), Jim Trimble, Ron Myers, Bill Wimberly (trombones), Ernie Watts, Quin Davis (alto saxes), Jay Corre, Robert Keller (tenor saxes), Marty Flax (baritone sax), Ray Starling (piano), Richard Resnicoff (guitar), James Gannon (bass)

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Composed by Lennon/McCartney; arranged by Bill Holman

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Recorded: Hollywood, CA, February 22-March 10, 1967

Albumcoverbuddyrich-bigswingface

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

Though the power and audacity of Bill Holman's arrangement contrasts with the light folksiness of John Lennon's original, there are also elements in common. The booming low brass pedal notes recall the drone of George Harrison's sitar, and the harmonic movement and melodic content is charmingly minimal. Like the Beatles' version, Holman's arrangement is focused on shifting texture and overlaying counterpoint, only on a more massive scale. The energy peaks on the final bridge (replete with Jim Trimble's trombone freak-out) and the last fortissimo unison verse backed by screaming trumpet shakes, multiple contrapuntal lines and Rich's ferocious drumming. Just when your ears are about to explode, everything drops out and guitarist Richard Resnicoff tags the final four bars by himself. An exhilarating chart by the hardest swinging big band of the 1960s.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Brad Mehldau: Dear Prudence

Track

Dear Prudence

Artist

Brad Mehldau (piano)

CD

Largo (Warner Bros 48114)

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Musicians:

Brad Mehldau (piano),

Derek “Oles” Oleszkiewicz (bass), Jim Keltner (drums), Matt Chamberlain (shaker, percussion)

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Composed by Lennon/McCartney

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Recorded: Hollywood, CA, April 2-8, 2001

Albumcoverbradmehldau-largo

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

Brad Mehldau sounds completely comfortable bridging the gap between rock and jazz, and "Dear Prudence" is another of his unforced, genre-spanning efforts. He never overworks his covers by trying to do too much with them; instead, he respects the compositional boundaries and celebrates what made the tune great in the first place. The pianist's take on the melody here is pretty straightforward, and though the mood is mellow, the groove is buoyant thanks to Oles's swinging bass. The star, though, is Jim Keltner, the renowned rock session drummer who actually recorded with three of the Fab Four (Lennon, Harrison and Starr). His work is loose but precise, unpredictable and subtly extraordinary. His understated playing behind Mehldau's solo is fantastic, especially his slyly capricious hi-hat accents and floor-tom fills. Close listening will be richly rewarded.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Don Ellis: Hey Jude

Track

Hey Jude

Artist

Don Ellis (trumpet, drums)

CD

Don Ellis at Fillmore (Wounded Bird 3024)

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Musicians:

Don Ellis (trumpet, drums),

Glenn Stuart, Stu Blumberg, John Rosenberg, Jack Coan (trumpets), Ernie Carlson, Glenn Ferris, Don Switzer (trombones), Doug Bixby (contrabass trombone, tuba), Fred Seldon, Lonnie Shetter, Sam Falzone, John Klemmer, Jon Clarke (saxes and winds), Tom Garvin (piano), Jay Graydon (guitar), Dennis Parker (bass), Ralph Humphrey (drums), Lee Pastora (conga), Ron Dunn (percussion and drums)

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Composed by Lennon/McCartney; arranged by Don Ellis

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Recorded: live at Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, CA, June 1970

Albumcoverdonellisatfillmore

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

This track is totally bonkers. Is that R2-D2 being tortured during the opening cadenza? No, that's Don Ellis's trumpet, amplified and mutated by a Ring Modulator and echo devices. Imagine being at the Fillmore in 1970 and seeing someone do that with Louis Armstrong's instrument! The first pass at the tune is backed by a "Pomp and Circumstance"-like brass choir, with Ellis and guitarist Jay Graydon creating as much indiscriminate noise as they do melody. Contrabass trombone and flute momentarily bring things into perspective as they double the melody on the bridge, and then the circus comes to town with some outrageously dissonant oompah-ing. Ellis's unaccompanied solo—at once humorously Mozartian and bizarrely extraterrestrial—calls the band to attention, and they roar through the legendary coda. There isn't much middle ground here: some listeners will appreciate and dig Ellis's humor, and others will seek the closest blunt object to bludgeon their ears. Regardless, for better or worse, no other band has ever come close to sounding like Don Ellis's orchestra.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Gabor Szabo: In My Life

Track

In My Life

Artist

Gabor Szabo (guitar)

CD

Gabor Szabo 1969 (DCC 637)

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Musicians:

Gabor Szabo (guitar),

Francis Vaz (guitar), Louis Kabok (bass), Jim Keltner (percussion)

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Composed by Lennon/McCartney

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Recorded: Los Angeles, January 20-24, 1969

Albumcovergaborszabo-1969

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Though Gabor Szabo's late 1960s and early '70s catalog is uneven, some of his jazz-pop crossover tracks are well-deserving of rediscovery. The lullaby-like "In My Life" is one of his gems. John Lennon's exquisite ballad is stripped down to its barest melodic essentials. Szabo's plaintive lead is elegant and poignant, accompanied by second guitarist Vaz's modest arpeggios and voice-leading. Kabok outlines only the basic harmonic bottom, and Keltner's cymbal texturing adds a light touch of finesse. Written as an ode to John Lennon's Liverpool childhood, the reflective and nostalgic beauty of his lyrics is delivered expressively in this touching performance.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Don Byron: I'll Follow the Sun

Track

I'll Follow the Sun

Artist

Don Byron (clarinet)

CD

Romance with the Unseen (Blue Note 99545)

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Musicians:

Don Byron (clarinet), Bill Frisell (guitar), Drew Gress (bass), Jack DeJohnette (drums).

Composed by Lennon/McCartney

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Recorded: Bearsville, NY, January and March 1999

Albumcoverdonbyron-romancewiththeunseen

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

Multifaceted clarinetist Don Byron scores huge with this cover of Paul McCartney's divine "I'll Follow the Sun." His clear-toned clarinet a perfect representation of McCartney's charming tenor voice, Byron delivers the melody with ease above Frisell's ringing arpeggios and inimitable comping style. The sublime harmonic tension embedded in the chord progression elicits many lovely moments of resolution during Byron's engaging solo. Frisell references the melody, often cleverly implied or displaced unexpectedly, throughout his choruses. Gress provides firm support, and DeJohnette's delicate cymbal and snare work, selective hi-hat and rim-clicks are simply splendid (especially behind Frisell's solo). This fabulous track will bring a sunny smile to any listener's face.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Chris Potter: Yesterday

Track

Yesterday

Artist

Chris Potter (tenor sax)

CD

Underground (Sunnyside 3034)

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Musicians:

Chris Potter (tenor sax),

Craig Taborn (Fender Rhodes), Wayne Krantz, Adam Rogers (guitars), Nate Smith (drums)

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Composed by Lennon/McCartney

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Recorded: unknown date; released 2006

Albumcoverchrispotter-underground

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Hundreds of covers have dulled the luster of Paul McCartney's "Yesterday," but like a fresh coat of wax on a vintage Rolls-Royce, Chris Potter's unique version restores the sparkle and magnificence, making an old tune sound new again. Beginning in chorale-like fashion, Potter tenderly guides the guitars and electric piano through McCartney's heartbreakingly gorgeous melody. The understated counterpoint and voice leading create some unanticipated and interesting harmonic moments, enough to catch your ear but not distract from the leader's touching rendering of the melody. The bridge is a more typical jazz ballad, with the introduction of Smith's brushes and hi-hat and Potter's improvised embellishment of the melody padded by rich, sustained chords from Krantz, Rogers and Taborn. The second verse is accentuated by more elaborate movement from one of the guitars (especially from 2:13 to 2:20). One of the best jazz Beatles covers out there, Chris Potter's interpretation of this classic is simply marvelous.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Mark Turner: She Said, She Said

Track

She Said, She Said

Artist

Mark Turner (tenor sax)

CD

In This World

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Musicians:

Mark Turner (tenor sax), Brad Mehldau (Fender Rhodes), Kurt Rosenwinkel (guitar), Larry Grenadier (bass), Brian Blade (drums).

Composed by Lennon/McCartney

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Recorded: New York, June 3-5, 1998

Albumcovermarkturner-inthisworld

Rating: 91/100 (learn more)

At the time of this recording, Mark Turner and Kurt Rosenwinkel were in two working groups together, developing a seamless blend only achieved by sharing the stage night after night. Brad Mehldau is invited into the mix here, making a rare appearance on electric piano; his Rhodes' warm, buttery sound blankets Turner's unassuming, even-toned tenor and Rosenwinkel's gracefully ambiguous, singing style. Turner glides through his solo, even his trickiest passages flowing effortlessly from his horn (check out 2:17-2:47). The original "She Said, She Said" featured some of Ringo Starr's greatest playing (his fills as integral to the composition as vocals and guitar), so who better than Brian Blade to man the traps in this version? Blade's ability to groove while filling is incomparable. His busyness never derails his momentum, and his shifting grooves enrich each soloist's canvas in clever and unique ways. Note the complexity of his hi-hat, snare and bass-drum work as Rosenwinkel's solo begins at 3:26.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Grant Green: A Day in the Life

Track

A Day in the Life

Artist

Grant Green (guitar)

CD

Green Is Beautiful (Blue Note 28265)

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Musicians:

Grant Green (guitar), Blue Mitchell (trumpet), Idris Muhammad (drums),

Claude Bartee (tenor sax), Earl Neal Creque (organ), Jimmy Lewis (bass), Candido Camero (congas), Richie Landrum (bongos)

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Composed by Lennon/McCartney

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Recorded: Englewood Cliffs, NJ, January 30, 1970

Albumcovergrantgreenisbeautiful

Rating: 85/100 (learn more)

Other prominent soul-jazz guitarists hitched onto the Beatles train (e.g., Wes Montgomery's 1967 A Day in the Life and George Benson's 1969 The Other Side of Abbey Road), but this Grant Green recording tops those efforts by his pop-minded compatriots. Whereas Benson and Montgomery were suffocated by Don Sebesky's infamously fluffy arrangements, Green's multi-sectioned version of "A Day in the Life" is poppy yet still raw and funky. Unlike Paul McCartney, Green doesn't drag a comb across his head while rushing to catch the bus, but instead starts his day with a relaxing soul-food breakfast and a tall glass of groove juice as he and Creque share melodic duties in the roles of John Lennon and Sir Paul, respectively. A weighty, minor horn interlude introduces the blowing section, which features King Funk Idris Muhammad's heavy pocket groove and cooking solos by Green, Bartee, and Creque. "A Day in the Life" was one of the Beatles' most epic tunes, and Green & Co. do it justice.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Steve Marcus: Tomorrow Never Knows

Track

Tomorrow Never Knows

Artist

Steve Marcus (soprano sax)

CD

Tomorrow Never Knows (Water Music 120)

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Musicians:

Steve Marcus (soprano sax), Larry Coryell (guitar),

Mike Nock (piano), Chris Hills (bass), Bob Moses (drums)

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Composed by Lennon/McCartney

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Recorded: 1968

Albumcoverstevemarcus-tomorrowneverknows

Rating: 83/100 (learn more)

The Beatles' 1966 album Revolver fired a psychedelic salvo that reverberated through not only the rock community but certain jazz circles as well. Saxophonist Steve Marcus always had his ears open to rock happenings, and his cover of Revolver's boldest track, "Tomorrow Never Knows," was one of the first jazz-directed explorations of the psychedelic realm. His soprano sax echoes John Lennon's detached and ethereal vocals, while Bob Moses lays out his own adaptation of one of rock's most famous drum beats. Mike Nock's solo is the highlight, stacking fourth chords beneath motive-based improvised lines. While Marcus spirals deep into the Coltrane-esque reaches of outer space, Coryell and Nock broaden the sonic potential of their instruments; Coryell strums heavy open chords, experiments with violent, stabbing feedback and wah and echo pedals, and Nock plucks and pats his piano's strings. Although Hills's gravitational bass pedaling prevents his bandmates from permanently escaping into the cosmos, 11 minutes of his incessant thumping leaves something to be desired.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Count Basie: Michelle

Track

Michelle

Artist

Count Basie (piano, organ)

CD

Basie's Beatle Bag (Universal/Polygram 2613)

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Musicians:

Count Basie (piano, organ),

Al Aarons, Sonny Cohn, Wallace Davenport, Phil Guilbeau (trumpets), Henderson Chambers, Al Grey, Grover Mitchell, Bill Hughes (trombones), Bobby Plater (alto sax, flute), Marshall Royal (alto sax, clarinet), Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis (tenor sax), Eric Dixon (tenor sax, flute), Charlie Fowlkes (baritone sax, flute), Freddie Green (guitar), Norman Keenan (bass), Sonny Payne (drums)

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Composed by Lennon/McCartney; arranged by Chico O’Farrill

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Recorded: Hollywood, CA, May 3-5, 1966

Albumcovercountbasie-basiesbeatlebag

Rating: 84/100 (learn more)

"Michelle" is one of Paul McCartney's many love songs, but the chromatic movement in the melody and descending guitar line, sublime harmonies, subtly swinging beat, and even a jazz-inspired solo by George Harrison made it one of the more intricate ballads in the Beatles' songbook. Not surprisingly, "Michelle" is the tune that translates most easily into Count Basie's vernacular on Basie's Beatle Bag, a qualitatively mixed bag recorded five months to the day after Rubber Soul was released in the U.S. Chico O'Farrill's arrangement opens solidly with a typical swinging intro by the Count and a "Li'l Darlin'"-inspired fully voiced ensemble rendition of the verse containing nice movement from the inner horns. Basie's spare reading of the next 8 bars of the melody (supported only by bass and gentle cymbal) emphasizes the sexier side of McCartney's romanticism. After a muted trumpet improvisation over the second verse, the arrangement begins to lose its direction and is ultimately saved only by its brevity.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Geoff Keezer: Across the Universe

Track

Across the Universe

Artist

Geoff Keezer (piano)

CD

Zero One (Dreyfus 36703)

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Musicians:

Geoff Keezer (piano).

Composed by Lennon/McCartney

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Recorded: Los Angeles, June 1999

Albumcovergeoffkeezer-zeroone

Rating: 88/100 (learn more)

Solo piano adventures are too often unfairly measured against the introspection of Keith Jarrett, the complexity of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, or the technical prowess of Art Tatum. Inevitable comparisons to the indisputable brilliance of the masters can taint our perceptions of their disciples' efforts. Geoff Keezer proves that beauty is sometimes best realized through simplicity. Listeners won't be wowed by mind-boggling runs or harmonic eccentricities in his thoughtful solo version of John Lennon's "Across the Universe." Staying close to the melody, Keezer's soothing and concise performance doesn't push any boundaries or break any rules. But when isolated and appreciated for what it is and not chastised for what it isn't, the results are altogether gratifying.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


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