Despite popular belief, jazz and pop music aren’t at odds. In the past — and still to this day — jazz musicians have been both contributing to and tackling compositions from the Great American Songbook: Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing” and “Take the A Train” remain in the realm of pop culture reference and John Coltrane, who is generally associated with an avant-garde approach to jazz, is also remembered for his lovely rendition of The Sound of Music‘s “My Favorite Things.”
That tradition continues to this day, with modern jazz musicians discovering little compositional diamonds in modern pop. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. While honoring the past and communicating in a shared, established language is a defining quality of jazz, so is the tendency to adopt a forward-thinking approach to music, seeking to expand that shared language in ways that are both experimental and innovative. Considering how many modern jazz artists have grown up listening to a variety of genres, it’s only natural that they’d turn to these influences as they develop their own personal sound. The songs in this list are just a few examples of that enduring phenomenon, and offer a glimpse of modern jazz musicians as they compile a new edition of standards — a new songbook for a new era.
Todd Clouser’s A Love Electric Covers Pearl Jam’s “Release”
Very few albums symbolized grunge’s revolt against the ’80s more than Pearl Jam’s Ten. Though the album is known for its boiling disillusionment, it’s also home to the ham-handed power ballad “Release,” which is on par with Journey at their most emotive, albeit shifted down a few octaves. On his excellent 20th Century Folk Selections, guitarist Todd Clouser burnishes this tune into a sonic diamond. Clouser and mates develop the original song’s melody into something more intricate, allowing trumpet, piano and guitar to intertwine, while giving ample room for a textured harmonization that makes the song seem so much bigger than the original — and likely closer to the raw emotional punch that Eddie Vedder envisioned.
Brad Mehldau Covers Sufjan Stevens’s “Holland”
On 2003′s Greetings From Michigan, indie-folk artist Sufjan Stevens gives an audio tour of his home state of Michigan, delivering melancholy ballads in a wispy voice and displaying his penchant for painting softly with a big brush. On his 2012 release Where Do You Start, pianist Brad Mehldau pinpoints the underlying tension in the song. With his longtime trio of bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, he develops that song to dramatic effect without sacrificing the essential frailty that made the original so winning.
Taylor Haskins Covers Neil Young’s “Theme from Dead Man”
The soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s post-modern western Dead Man featured the guitar work of Neil Young, which highlighted both the movie’s bleakness as well as its surreal overtones. On the film’s theme song, Young served up incisively melodic lines, giving the music a sharp bite to go with its undeniable tunefulness. On Taylor Haskins’s 2010 release American Dream, he scoops up the melody on trumpet and lets it soar. Guitarist Ben Monder adds sharp edges along the periphery, while the rhythm section of bassist Ben Street and Jeff Hirshfield on drums fuses the trumpet and guitar into one singular force.
Vijay Iyer Covers Flying Lotus’s “Mmmhmm”
On 2010′s Cosmogramma, Flying Lotus and Thundercat’s “Mmmhmm” is a laid-back bit of electronic serenity, the kind of music that William Gibson’s robotic A.I.s would listen to after dropping synthetic ecstasy — soothing vocals, bright notes and a cadence that chugs along with the hypnotic stagger of a washing machine cycle. On 2012′s Accelerando, pianist Vijay Iyer’s trio imbues it with dark tones and an unsettling rhythmic patter. This is nothing new from Iyer, who is able to recognize, deconstruct and then rebuild melodies with a surgical precision. What makes his rendition of the Flying Lotus song so damn frightening is how close it is to the original. It’s like viewing its reflection on a clear but shimmering lake surface: The slight differences give the unnerving sense that “all is not as it should be.” At the outset, Iyer states the melody directly, then sets about tweaking it. His trio doesn’t abandon the circular motion of the original’s percussive approach, but the circles get tighter, bringing a palpable sense of urgency to the affair. Add to that Iyer’s frenetic bursts on piano, and the original’s mesmerizing presence becomes something far more wide-eyed.
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey Covers The Flaming Lips’ “The Spark That Bled”
There are a lot of comparisons that could be drawn between The Flaming Lips and Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. Both hail from Oklahoma but, more essentially, both outfits have blurred the lines between genres and discovered little crevices in between to incubate their music and allow it to grow. The Soft Bulletin was a new peak for the Lips, bringing woozy strings and rapturous melodies to their warped, psych-rock sound. The JFJO have been blending folk, rock and avant-garde with jazz for years, amassing an impressive discography that offers proof of their inventiveness. It seems natural that they’d be drawn to the Lips’ music. The Lips’ version of “The Spark That Bled” takes several thrilling changes in direction, going from a quiet bit of crooning to dramatic orchestration to some chipper alt-rock twang. It’s a massive song. JFJO strips it all down to a piano tune, showing the tiny beating heart at its center. They mirror the tempo changes and melodic developments of the original with accuracy, but where the original was rife with theatrical flair, JFJO susses out the blues from the composition, and lets that serve as the main course. Restrained when compared to the original, but no less evocative, and displays JFJO’s ability to reverse engineer a thickly produced song and reveal its essential parts.
The Bad Plus Covers Wilco’s “Radio Cure”
Wilco’s experimental mix of rock and country might seem like a difficult source of inspiration for a jazz artist, but the Bad Plus have made a name for themselves by tackling the songbooks of a disparate group of rockers, including Yes, Rush, Blondie and Nirvana. On Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco strayed from their alt-country roots, developing a singular voice that showcased their inventive nature and sense of experimentalism. On “Radio Cure,” Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy is accompanied by sporadic percussion, the gentle patter of guitar and slow-burning electronic effects. The Bad Plus pulls that combination apart, using the individual elements as bookends for their rendition. The trio of pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, drummer Dave King and guest vocalist Wendy Lewis provide two views of this song. There are moments cloaked in bleakness and despair greater than the original, and then there are the moments where the sun breaks through and the band rises up, in rejuvenation and hopefulness. And where Wilco never lets on whether the story has a happy ending or a sad one, The Bad Plus’s rendition implies that both are true, and that one doesn’t preclude the other. It’s a nifty bit of emotional reconstruction.
Dr. Lonnie Smith Covers Beck’s “Paper Tiger”
Previously known for magnetic tunes that combined stoned grooves with catchy melodies, Beck changed course on 2002′s Sea Change, favoring mostly arid acoustic guitar. On the profoundly moving “Paper Tiger,” Beck’s evocative vocals, and the song’s dramatic orchestral accompaniment, are the perfect expression of brokenhearted blues. The duo of veteran organist Dr. Lonnie Smith and guitarist Doug Munro turn the song on its head, offering up a soulful groove which is far more likely to elicit smiles and good cheer than the original. And it also displays that jazz musician’s knack for taking a strong melody in unexpected new directions.
Donny McCaslin Covers Boards of Canada’s “Alpha & Omega”
On “Alpha & Omega,” from their 2007 record Geogaddi, the electronic outfit Boards of Canada knit a gentle blanket of shimmering harmonies. On his 2012 release Casting For Gravity, saxophonist Donny McCaslin stretched out in a number of directions, bulldozing genre walls along the way. Joined by Jason Lindner, Tim Lefebvre and Mark Guiliana, McCaslin uses the original’s electronics as the foundation from which to expand its rhythmic dynamics.
Robert Glasper Covers Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place”
Perhaps the gold standard in modern renditions, pianist Robert Glasper exploded onto the scene with his exemplary mash-up of Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” and Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place,” balancing the joyfulness of the one with the tempered melancholia of the other. The seamless transitions between the two created all sorts of lovely tension and intrigue, and opened up the possibilities held within the Radiohead songbook. Found on Glasper’s 2007 release In My Element,, it’s just one highlight on an excellent album.
Brad Mehldau Covers Radiohead’s “Knives Out”
Yes, a second Brad Mehldau selection and, yes, another Radiohead song. This is not due to a lack of choices, but to represent two different trends. The first: aside from The Bad Plus, very few musicians have been as proactive in adapting modern rock tunes to a Jazz construct than Mehldau. The second: to illustrate that the Radiohead songbook has been adopted by modern jazz musicians with the same zeal as that of the Beatles. Jazz musicians are endlessly finding aspects of Radiohead tunes that they can sink their teeth into and transform into something even new and exciting. On Mehldau’s rendition of “Knives Out,” he adopts Radiohead’s shuffling cadence and bubbly persona as the starting point, but from there, begins exploring the possibilities expressed by the original statement of melody, and imbues the tune with a thrilling aspect not evidenced in the original’s moody disposition.
Next Collective Covers Drake’s “Marvin’s Room”
On “Marvin’s Room,” rapper Drake delivers a mix of heartbreak and hedonism. Explaining to an ex how badly he needs her by bemoaning his overindulgence in drink, women and parties since she left him shows a side of loneliness that’s characterized by a kind of fumbling vulnerability. Trumpeter Christian Scott evokes that same vulnerability with a restrained tone, reflecting the song’s fragile nature. The Next Collective’s Cover Art imbues that same spirit into a variety of tunes, from artists including Jay-Z, Pearl Jam, Frank Ocean and Bon Iver.
Peggy Lee Band Covers Mary Margaret O’Hara’s “You Will Be Loved Again”
As a solo performer, the recording career of Mary Margaret O’Hara never quite took off, though her distinct vocal delivery earned her invitations to collaborate with a disparate group of artists, including Neko Case, Bruce Cockburn, Morrissey and the Tindersticks. Her songwriting skills also drew plenty of attention. On her debut Miss America, O’Hara offers up a lilting, sparse rendition of her song “You Will Be Loved Again,” made famous later by the Cowboy Junkies on their 1991 album The Caution Horses, and later ending up in the lap of avant-garde cellist Peggy Lee, on her band’s outstanding 2012 release Invitation. Lee, who has a wonderful talent for transitioning between statements of sharp dissonance and those of enthralling melodicism, sticks mostly to the latter on this rendition, her Band providing a depth of harmonies and an ebullience not found on previous versions.
Alex Guilbert Trio Covers The Shins’ “New Slang”
With their almost supernatural talent for crafting catchy melodies, the Shins routinely deliver upbeat, cheerful-sounding music that’s equally sweet and sardonic. On their rendition of 2001′s “New Slang,” the Alex Guilbert Trio doesn’t do much to change the formula, but they do ramp up the cheerfulness. Aside from it simply being a nifty cover of a nifty song, Guilbert’s trio illuminates just how much the music of the Shins and Vince Guaraldi have in common, if you just add a jaunty rhythm and some jazz piano. I dare you to listen to Guilbert’s version and not imagine Snoopy dancing joyfully while Schroeder hunches over his piano.
Marcin Wasilewski Trio Covers Prince’s “Diamond and Pearls”
Marcin Wasilewski Trio’s 2008 release January fit right in with the quiet serenity of a typical ECM Records release, except for the fact that it was anything but typical. Pianist Wasilewski had an illusionist’s touch on the melody, giving wispy hints at it like fragmentary visions within a thick drifting fog, resulting in quiet music that gently rouses the listener from a state of wakefulness rather than drives them to it. On the title track to Prince’s New Power Generation’s 1991 release, Wasilewski eschews the brightly polished notes and shiny embellishments of Prince’s original, and instead uses the melody to coax the listener to follow along as he develops it into something more complex, presented with the patience of a slowly moving river.
Madeleine Peyroux Covers Elliott Smith’s “Between the Bars”
On her 2004 release Careless Love, vocalist Madeleine Peyroux takes Elliot Smith’s Either/Or song “Between the Bars” and transmutes it from a light tune thick with depression and forewarning into a lullaby meant to soothe and comfort and make all the worries disappear. Smith’s vocals have always been compelling, with his voice soothing in its own right, kept up at a higher register and delivered in the gentlest way. Peyroux keeps things gentle, but by utilizing a more expansive vocal range, is able to break through the predisposition to sadness of the original and instill a more hopeful kind of blues, the kind one can drift off to, into a night of sweet dreams.