Dylan’s jazz

Dylan Jazz (1965)

I’d listen to a lot of jazz and bebop records, too. Records by George Russell or Johnny Cole, Red Garland, Don Byas, Roland Kirk, Gil Evans – Evans had recorded a rendition of “Ella Speed,” the Leadbelly song. I tried to discern melodies and structures. There were a lot of similarities between some kinds of jazz and folk music. “Tattoo Bride,” “A Drum Is a Woman,” “Tourist Point of View” and “Jump for Joy” – all by Duke Ellington – they sounded like sophisticated folk music. The music world was getting bigger every day.

Bob Dylan, Chronicles volume one

A while ago I wrote a post on covers of Bob Dylan songs, but in doing so I left out jazz. It was too large a subject in itself and demanded a separate post. So here it is – jazz versions of Bob Dylan songs.

Dylan’s formative world was filled with jazz. In his memoir Chronicles volume one he writes of the jazz music that he listened to, and of its close affinity with the folk world to which he was drawn to in the New York of the early 60s. He listened to Dizzy Gillespie, played one time with Cecil Taylor, and was championed early on by the jazz critics Robert Shelton and Nat Hentoff, whose words of praise were used on Dylan’s first and second album cover respectively. Jazz and folk intermingled in the clubs and festivals and were part of the same movement, seeking through music to find an honesty of expression in a dishonest world.

So, even if Dylan writes that he didn’t follow jazz as such, because “there were any ordinary words with specific meanings” and he needed “to hear things plain and simple in the King’s English”, jazz was an integral part of Dylan’s world as he was starting out on his musical career.

Jazz musicians likewise responded to Dylan. Initially they did so by adopting his tunes simply because they were popular and might help with sales. Stan Getz and Duke Ellington both produced covers of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ that dutifully reproduce the tune but reveal that a tune was all that it was to them. King Curtis’s version of the same song likewise treats it as just another pop number to appeal to a younger audience, but does at least give it a cheerful swing that opens up some of the melody’s potential.

The epitome of Dylan’s tunes being used by jazzers keen to tap into the pop market is the remarkable Dylan’s Jazz, by the Gene Norman Group, from 1965. This is an entire album of jazz covers performed in workmanlike fashion by a combo that included future country star Glen Campbell on guitar. It’s proficient stuff, great for playing in the background of your mid-60s swinging party, but chiefly notable for how the musicians have no sense of the song’s import, even if they are playing them as instrumentals. Their version of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues‘, for instance, reproduces exactly what they saw on the music sheets, but bears no relation in feeling, or indeed tune, to what Dylan meant.

Of course Dylan was primarily about words and the jazzers were chiefly interested in expression through the music alone, but it was possible to combine the two. Gradually the musical intricacies of Dylan’s songs intrigued and a distinctive body of cover versions grew. Exemplifying this new approach was Keith Jarrett’s version of ‘My Back Pages‘ from his 1968 album Somewhere Before. With Charlie Haden on bass, Paul Motian on drums, and Jarrett’s piano, this doesn’t just untap the riches promised by Dylan’s melody, but recapitulates its wistful feeling. It understands the song, while making it Jarrett’s own.

And so the numbers by jazz musicians who actually liked their Dylan and where the music could take them has grown and grown. There’s Gary Burton’s delightful ‘I Want You‘; David ‘Fathead’ Newman’s sweet version of ‘Just Like a Woman‘; Herbie Hancock’s mysterious ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’‘ (with singer); guitarist Bill Frisell’s several distinctive takes on the standards, including ‘Just Like a Woman‘ and ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall‘; or Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield and John Medeski’s group Hudson testing out ‘Lay Lady Lay‘ and a nicely deconstructed ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall‘. All show how Dylan’s musical ideas alone set the imagination free (though memory of the words never escapes you).

That said, it is the jazz singers who have responded most deeply to the Dylan songbook. Most enthusiastic among them was probably Nina Simone, whose soaring take on ‘Just Like a Woman‘ made it into my top ten Dylan general covers list. But she also added her distinctive touch to ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues and ‘I Shall Be Released‘ (inevitably). Other jazz (or jazz-ish) singers who have be drawn to Dylan include Cassandra Wilson (‘Shelter from the Storm‘, ‘Lady Lady Lay‘); Norah Jones (‘Heart of Mine‘); Jacqui Dankworth (‘I Threw It All Away‘); Christine Tobin (‘All I Really Want To Do‘); Erin Bode (‘Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You‘); Diane Krall (‘Simple Twist of Fate‘), the tragic Norwegian singer Radka Toneff (a spine-tingling ‘Just Like a Woman‘); Sarah Vaughan’s jaunty if not terribly jazzy as such ‘If Not for You‘; and, perhaps most successfully of all of them, Madeleine Peyroux’s worldly-fresh ‘You’re Going to Make Me Lonesome When You Go‘ (Blood on the Tracks is clearly the go-to album for jazz balladeers). If, as I wrote, a successful cover version must be an arresting interpretation of an established original, then all of these qualify – with added diminished chords.

The above are all female. Male jazz singers who taken on Dylan with distinction include occasional jazzer Curtis Stigers (‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright‘, ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight‘, ‘Things Have Changed‘), the extraordinary countertenor Little Jimmy Scott (who has left us an unearthly ‘When He Returns); and keyboardist/singer Ben Sidran’s smokin’ version of ‘Highway 61 Revisited‘ (from a whole album of covers, Dylan Different).

There is more to be discovered among the wilder or more obscure corners of jazz. How about the quartet of bass saxophonists, Deep Schrott, with their cheery and surprisingly credible take on ‘Like a Rolling Stone‘ (from an album of Dylan and Eisler covers)? Or acoustic guitar virtuoso Michael Hedges’s post-Hendrix interpretation of ‘All Along the Watchtower‘? Or the Afro-Cuban Afro Blues Quintet’s bossa-nova-ish ‘Too Much of Nothing‘? Or along the borderlands of jazz, Georgie Fame’s energetic big band run through ‘Down Along the Cove‘? There are many such to be discovered among the nether reaches of Spotify.

The three Jewels and Binoculars albums (so far)

But the best jazz interpretations of Dylan have come from a group put together specifically for the purpose, Jewels and Binoculars. This is a trio, comprising Michael Vatcher (drums), Lindsay Horner (bass) and Michael Moore (alto saxophone, clarinet etc). Their three albums, Jewels and Binoculars (2001), Floater (2004) and Ships with Tattooed Sails (2007) (for which they were joined on some tracks by Bill Frisell) each feature nothing but instrumental covers of Dylan songs (occasionally traditional songs covered by him). Collectively the music reinvents how Dylan can be represented through jazz. Each tune taken on the familiar and renders it compellingly unfamiliar. This does not mean that the songs are used as the starting point for outré improvisation. The tunes are approached as though the musicians had encountered them for the first time, but (unlike the Gene Norman Group) at the same time they have a profound understanding of the song’s significance – that is, what drove Dylan to write it, or to cover it, in the first place. The arrangements are spare yet the soundscapes are rich; there is such variety of approach. Only Ships with Tattooed Sails is available on Spotify, but try out ‘Cold Irons Bound‘, ‘Senor‘ or ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m only Bleeding)‘ (their choice of covers is an inspiration in itself), and see how Dylan’s imaginative world has been opened out musically. They explore as the best of jazz must explore.

Finally, there is the man himself. For a long while the only foray Dylan made into recording jazz was the extraordinary ‘If Dogs Run Free’ from New Morning, with scat singing accompaniment from Maeretha Stewart. But latterly Dylan has begun to swing, albeit in a manner befitting one of advancing years. Songs such as ‘Moonlight‘, from Love and Theft, introduce a 1940s’-style easy jazz shuffle that revealed Dylan’s growing interest in the kind of music that played on the radio in his childhood, before he discovered folk, or rock. This led to the series of albums of nothing but American song book covers, many of them associated with Frank Sinatra: Shadows in the Night, Fallen Angels and this year’s Triplicate.

I must admit I find these records disappointing. Partly it’s because the originals do nothing for me in the first place, and partly it’s the lack of variety on offer, as one maudlin slow tempo number follows another, and another, and another. But Dylan’s vocalising is touched with true sentiment (with very little croaking), and isolated songs of great feeling (‘What’ll I Do‘, ‘Stay With Me‘) charm and convince you of their sincerity. It’s just a long way off from jamming with Cecil Taylor in a coffeehouse on Bleecker Street, way back when.

Enough of all this. I hope there’s enough to encourage discovery by some. To help you do so, below is a Spotify list of Dylan jazz covers, including most of the numbers mentioned above. If you know of others worth adding to this, let me know.

Links:

  • There are a number of pieces out there on Dylan and jazz, or which collect together favourite jazz versions of Dylan’s songs. See, for example, Tom Wilmeth’s knowledgeable and wide-ranging article for Jazz Times, ‘Jazz in the Key of Bob‘, or the entertaining selection with YouTube clips on Johnny Borgan’s blog
  • Dylanology website Expecting Rain has a good selection of covers of relevant jazz albums, with quite a few surprises (Woody Herman and ‘Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat’?)
  • Most recently Dylan released his Nobel Prize speech, an extraordinary piece of work rhapsodizing on the influence of Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Odyssey (think of it as the greatest school essay ever written). The reading features a piano accompaniment by jazz pianist Alan Pasqua – more information in this New York Times piece

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