THE DOZENS: THE NEW STANDARDS by Matt Leskovic

Jazz musicians have always used popular music for improvisational vehicles. Songs from Broadway, Tin Pan Alley, even the Disney catalog have been permanent fixtures in jazz repertoire for decades. Tunes taken from the Great American Songbook have filled out record dates, taught musicians their chord changes, and served as tools to judge proficiency in jam session battles.

The New Standards

However, each successive generation’s relationship with standards has become more and more distant. The association with the Great American Songbook is no longer a direct one. It’s like a teenager learning of a time when you bought LPs at a store and not MP3s on the Internet, or that MTV once actually played music videos—they may know the history, but they didn’t live it. A young saxophonist relates more to Charlie Parker playing “Star Eyes” than to “Star Eyes” itself. And today’s tenorists would be hard pressed to say anything on “Body and Soul” that they didn’t learn, directly or indirectly, from Coleman Hawkins.

Just as Bob Dylan said of the ‘60s, these times are definitely “a-changin.” Seeking new, closer-to-home sources of inspiration, musicians are looking towards their own generation’s pop music. You’re now as likely to hear the Beatles as you are the Gershwins, Björk as you are Irving Berlin, Prince as you are Cole Porter. These are the songs that the younger generation of jazz musicians grew up listening to on mix tapes in their Walkmans and watching on MTV. Their relationship lies directly with the source and not filtered through 70 years of tradition.

The introduction of these new compositions to the jazz lexicon creates new challenges, and challenge always spurs creativity. The tunes are fresh for interpretation, and the musicians eager to delve into their untouched harmonic, melodic and rhythmic potential. Here is a sampling of 12 of the most engaging new standards for the new jazz era.


Brad Mehldau: Paranoid Android

Track

Paranoid Android

Artist

Brad Mehldau (piano)

CD

Live in Tokyo (Nonesuch 79853)

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Musicians:

Brad Mehldau (piano).

Composed by Colin Greenwood, Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, Phil Selway & Thom Yorke

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Recorded: Tokyo, February 2003

Albumcoverbradmehldau-liveintokyo

Rating: 91/100 (learn more)

It is difficult to credit one artist for initiating the trend to cover 1990s alternative pop/rock songs, but Brad Mehldau is certainly setting the standards for his likeminded contemporaries. Fans eagerly await every Mehldau release, wondering what he is going to cover next—and he never disappoints. His 2002 album Largo featured a spot-on cover of Radiohead's "Paranoid Android," but this version from his 2004 solo piano album Live in Tokyo is the more rewarding listen. At nearly 20 minutes, the track is epic and challenging, and Mehldau's playing passionately inquisitive. His intro—delicate and wistful with Jarrett-like thematic development—slowly morphs into "Android's" familiar descending harmony and ascending melody. Using the theme as a launching pad, Mehldau probes deeply into the tune's intricacies while never abandoning its essence. With the interaction between his right and left hands, he investigates the juxtaposition of Thom Yorke's haunting and detached vocals and the density and power of the band's guitars and drums.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


The Bad Plus: Heart of Glass

Track

Heart of Glass

Group

The Bad Plus

CD

These Are the Vistas (Columbia 59850)

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Musicians:

Ethan Iverson (piano),

Reid Anderson (bass), David King (drums)

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Composed by Debbie Harry & Chris Stein

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Recorded: Box, Wiltshire, England, September 30-October 5, 2002

Albumcoverthebadplus-thesearethevistas

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

The Bad Plus has garnered much attention for their unpredictable covers, though too often because critics unfortunately see them as "shticky" and tongue in cheek. Nothing could be farther from the truth. These tunes are chosen out of the group's respect and love for great pop compositions, and none may be finer than their deconstructed version of Blondie's 1979 dance-pop hit "Heart of Glass." The trio swings jubilantly through the melody, highlighted by Iverson's fascinating left-hand counterpoint. Order is created out of chaos and beauty from noise as their wild, free improvisation frantically teeters on the brink of brilliant insanity and complete annihilation of the tune. Following a rumbling piano sounding not unlike the aftermath of an atomic detonation, Iverson's most literal interpretation of the melody creeps out amidst the rubble. Nodding to Studio 54-era dance floors, the tune rides out on King's nu-school disco beat—in seven!!

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Madeleine Peyroux: Between the Bars

Track

Between the Bars

Artist

Madeleine Peyroux (vocals, guitar)

CD

Careless Love (Rounder 613192)

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Musicians:

Madeleine Peyroux (vocals, guitar),

Larry Goldings (piano, celeste), David Piltch (bass), Jay Bellerose (drums)

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Composed by Elliott Smith

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Recorded: Venice, Italy and Hollywood, CA, 2003

Albumcovermadeleinepeyroux-carelesslove

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

It is often difficult to argue that a cover can be greater than its original, but one listen to Madeleine Peyroux's version of Elliott Smith's "Between the Bars" will have you calling "shotgun" as you hop on her bandwagon. The former Parisian street singer may not be a strikingly original stylist, but she's no mere imitator. She has the rare ability to own every song she sings in the present, regardless of who claimed it in the past. While Peyroux's smoky vocals and behind-the-beat delivery are heavily Billie Holiday- influenced, in this case the fit is perfect.

The musicians exquisitely set an after-hours mood—a gray Parisian night, fog dampening an already dim streetlamp, while Peyroux selfishly goads her companion into one more drink: "Drink up one more time and I'll make you mine / Keep you apart deep in my heart / Separate from the rest where I like you the best." Goldings's piano flourishes float off into the night, and the sizzle of Bellerose's brushes complements Peyroux's seductive yet coy impression of Smith's intimate lyrics. An absolutely magical performance.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Dave Douglas: Unison

Track

Unison

Artist

Dave Douglas (trumpet)

CD

The Infinite (RCA Bluebird 63918)

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Musicians:

Dave Douglas (trumpet), Chris Potter (bass clarinet), Uri Caine (piano), James Genus (bass), Clarence Penn (drums).

Composed by Björk

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Recorded: New York, December 16-18, 2001

Albumcoverdavedouglas-theinfinite

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

Dave Douglas stands alone as the most distinctive trumpeter on today's scene. His playing nods to comparatively minor trumpet greats like Lester Bowie and Don Ellis as much as to more-championed giants such as Freddie Hubbard or Clifford Brown. Possessor of an extremely pliable sound, Douglas's unique experimentations with timbre and tone humanize his playing, with bent notes, glisses, smeared half-valves, and atypical phrasing all contributing to his flexible, vocal-like quality. It's hard to imagine any other trumpeter having both the necessary technique and expressiveness to take on Björk, the eccentric and brilliantly quirky Icelandic singer. Abnormalities aside, Douglas's performance on "Unison" matches the vulnerability in Björk's lyrics: "Now I can't do this without you / I never thought I would compromise / Let's unite tonight / We shouldn't fight / Embrace you tight / Let's unite tonight." The band follows the trumpeter compassionately, cresting with an emotional catharsis that will undoubtedly send shivers.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Bill Frisell: I Heard It Through the Grapevine

Track

I Heard It Through the Grapevine

Artist

Bill Frisell (guitar, loops)

CD

East/West (Nonesuch 79863)

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Musicians:

Bill Frisell (guitar, loops),

Viktor Krauss (bass), Kenny Wolleson (drums)

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Composed by Barrett Strong & Norman Whitfield

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Recorded: Oakland, CA, May 8-11, 2003

Albumcoverbillfrisell-eastwest

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Though he is known for the eclecticism of his music and the varying instrumentation of his many groups, guitarist Bill Frisell's talent is truly best displayed in a trio setting. Bassist Viktor Krauss and drummer Kenny Wolleson respond instinctively to every quirk in the guitarist's idiosyncratic style. Frisell's take on "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" is far from Marvin Gaye's Motown hit as the trio opts for a slow, blues-heavy groove that leaves ample space for the guitarist's sonic wizardry. His sparse rendering of the melody is filled out by finger-picked arpeggios and open-stringed, plucked chords, and his use of pedals—looping, delays, reverse attacks—is central to his sound as always. Frisell leaves his distinct fingerprints on every tune he touches, and through it all still finds a way to remain downhome and soulful.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Brad Mehldau: Day is Done

Track

Day is Done

Artist

Brad Mehldau (piano)

CD

Day is Done (Nonesuch 79910)

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Musicians:

Brad Mehldau (piano),

Larry Grenadier (bass), Jeff Ballard (drums)

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Composed by Nick Drake

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Recorded: New York City, March 13, 2005

Albumcoverbradmehldau-dayisdone

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Jeff Ballard replaced longtime Mehldau drummer Jorge Rossy on Day is Done, and considering Mehldau's and Rossy's 10-year partnership, had some large shoes to fill. Ballard is Rossy's polar opposite—where Rossy was subdued and complementary, Ballard is boisterous and dynamic. His liveliness invigorates the trio on this track, which comes from the pen of tragically troubled British singer/songwriter Nick Drake. Drake's original is dark and distressed; one might expect the trio's version to follow suit, and it does initially, with Grenadier's bass melody embodying the singer's lonely melancholy. Though I wouldn't exactly say a smiling sun ever rises (the harmony keeps the sky dark and the clouds thick), Ballard adds a spark of life to the night and keeps things groovy and moving along. The trio engages in some energized discourse, fueled by the drummer's rabbit-like quickness and penetrating snare and cymbal work.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


The Bad Plus: Everybody Wants to Rule the World

Track

Everybody Wants to Rule the World

Group

The Bad Plus

CD

Prog (Heads Up 3125)

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Musicians:

Ethan Iverson (piano),

Reid Anderson (bass), David King (drums)

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Composed by Chris Hughes, Roland Orzabal & Ian Stanley

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Recorded: Minnesota, September 2006

Albumcoverthebadplus-prog

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

The Bad Plus exhibit their softer side on their cover of Tears for Fears' 1985 Brit-pop smash "Everybody Wants to Rule the World." Whereas they often stake claim to their covers by systematically destroying them, this time the group chooses to evoke the dreamy implications of the tune's title with a gentle and calming childlike innocence. The Bad Plus' utopia is far from the turbulent reality we face daily. David King's expertise as a percussion colorist is often overlooked. His energetic and zealous fortissimo playing may be more memorable, but his ability to lure an extraordinary array of sounds out of his minimal kit stands out on this superb track, as does his playful communication with Iverson's piano.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Jacky Terrasson: Isn't She Lovely

Track

Isn't She Lovely

Artist

Jacky Terrasson (piano)

CD

Smile (Blue Note 5424132)

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Musicians:

Jacky Terrasson (piano),

Rémi Vignolo (electric bass), Eric Harland (drums)

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Composed by Stevie Wonder

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Recorded: Pompignan, France, June 12-21, 2002

Albumcoverjackyterrasson-smile

Rating: 80/100 (learn more)

Mixing Stevie Wonder's easy-listening classic "Isn't She Lovely" with a drum 'n' bass beat would be a difficult task for even the most talented DJ, let alone a piano trio. Though Terrasson and crew should be applauded for their efforts, the results suggest that maybe it shouldn't have been attempted in the first place. Even the most essential components seem disconnected—melody from harmony, drums from bass. Bassist Vignolo has trouble as the sole provider of chord structure; his note selections make the changes hard to follow, his time is suspect, and his electric bass is a bit too slippery. Terrasson's outstanding technique saves an otherwise forgettable track, using an impressive and unusual two-handed approach that adds a half-step dissonance to each note in his solo. The pianist is remarkable, and he alone makes this sub-par track worth a listen.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Herbie Hancock: New York Minute

Track

Herbie Hancock: New York Minute

Artist

Herbie Hancock (piano)

CD

The New Standard (Verve 529584)

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Musicians:

Herbie Hancock (piano), Michael Brecker (tenor sax), John Scofield (guitar), Dave Holland (bass), Jack DeJohnette (drums),

Don Alias (percussion)

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Composed by Don Henley, Danny Kortchmar & Jai Winding

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Recorded: New York, 1995

Albumcoverherbiehancock-thenewstandard

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

On his 1996 album New Standard, intrepid pianist Herbie Hancock borrows material from pop artists as disparate as Nirvana and Sade. All tracks are noteworthy, but one highlight is the hard-swinging version of Don Henley's "New York Minute." Brecker's and Scofield's dark, punchy interpretation of Henley's vocal adds to an already nightmarish mood established by the rhythm section's looming intensity. Hancock contributes a typically astounding solo, his extended lines stretching the modal harmony to its limit while retaining an instinctual bluesy funkiness. DeJohnette powers ahead assertively yet still remains responsive to Hancock's polymetric phrasing, unexpected accent patterns, and blurred barlines. Holland's monstrous sound and unassailable drive prove once again that any band swings harder when he is on bass.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey: The Spark That Bled

Track

The Spark That Bled

Group

Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey

CD

The Sameness of Difference (Hyena 9343)

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Musicians:

Brian Haas (piano),

Reed Mathis (electric bass), Jason Smart (drums)

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Composed by Wayne Coyne, Steven Drozd & Michael Ivins

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Recorded: New York, June 2005

Albumcoverjacobfredjazzodyssey-thesamenessofdifference

Rating: 85/100 (learn more)

There is much for jazz fans to love about The Flaming Lips, pop music's premier neo-psychedelic outfit. The Lips' music is daring yet accessible, unconventional yet beautifully melodic, playful yet musically and emotionally mature. Matching the mammoth symphonic, layered studio sound of The Lips' "The Spark That Bled" would be downright impossible; indie jazz power trio Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey's version is obviously stripped down, but to no detriment. The trio navigates through theatrical starts and stops with ease and considerable dynamic contrast. The arrangement doesn't leave room for improvisation, but frankly, blowing choruses are not at all missed. This is 21st-century rock-influenced chamber jazz; the composition is the focus with its gorgeous melodies and Haas's and Mathis's flawlessly executed counterpoint. Stay tuned—hopefully the jazz world will be singed with more of The Flaming Lips in the near future.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Joshua Redman: The Times They Are A-Changin'

Track

The Times They Are A-Changin'

Artist

Joshua Redman (alto sax)

CD

Timeless Tales (For Changing Times)

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Musicians:

Joshua Redman (alto sax), Brad Mehldau (piano), Brian Blade (drums),

Larry Grenadier (bass)

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Composed by Bob Dylan

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Recorded: New York City, 1998

Albumcoverjoshuaredman-timelesstalesforchangingtimes

Rating: 85/100 (learn more)

On his remake of Bob Dylan's anthem "The Times They Are A-Changin,'" Joshua Redman's warm and soulful sound translates easily on the alto, especially in his characteristic wailing improvisation in the coda. The saxophonist couldn't have picked a finer pop-conscious rhythm section to support him on this diverse set of covers. Mehldau and Grenadier have gone on to explore the intersection of pop and jazz quite thoroughly in the last decade, and Blade has recorded with a wide array of artists including crossover star Norah Jones, the iconoclastic Joni Mitchell, and Dylan himself. Arguably the best drummer of his generation, Blade brings an unmatched energy and enthusiasm to the table with his buoyant grooves, supple support, and conversational style. Listen for the quiet subtleties in his drumming—hi-hat splashes, polyrhythmic cymbal action, phrase-completing fills, and consistently shifting textures.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


Jason Moran: Planet Rock

Track

Planet Rock

Artist

Jason Moran (piano)

CD

Modernistic (Blue Note 39838)

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Musicians:

Jason Moran (piano).

Composed by Robert Allen, Arthur Baker, John Miller, John Robie & Alonzo Williams

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Recorded: New York, April 12, 2002

Albumcoverjasonmoran-modernistic

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Jason Moran's Modernistic is not your average solo piano album. It is an expansive artistic vision—a courageous and cohesive investigation of music history through the prism of modernity. While remaining respectful of the many traditions he examines, Moran's unique personality shines through. On hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock," Moran prepares the piano's lower octaves with erasers, paper, paperclips and clothespins, percussively creating a hip-hop drumbeat—imagine John Cage rocking a Bronx block party in 1982! Moran replicates the jaunty and angular old-school rap rhythms with a sound and attack reminiscent of Thelonious Monk. Looped chords—played in reverse through a computer—swell and breathe as the pianist, cerebral and impressionistic, counters the stiff beat with his elastic rhythmic sense. Moran's genre-overlapping adventures are a radical yet thoroughly welcome addition to the jazz canon.

Reviewer: Matt Leskovic


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