Moptop Bebop : Jazz v The Beatles

Updated: Mar 13



If anyone’s life was seriously altered by the emergence of the Beatles in Britain it was that of the jazz musician. Jazz pianist and pop arranger John Cameron, the man behind Donovan’s Sunshine Superman and CCS’s brassy take on Whole Lotta Love, recalls doing summer season gigs at a resort in the early ‘60s, while he was still at school. During big-band shows he would play in a little interval group that provided dance music for the teenagers. In the summer of 1962, they were still required to play swing, foxtrots and jives, but by the summer of 1963, the kids wanted nothing but Merseybeat; the whole repertoire had been overturned in just a few months.

Jazz dance bands had been knocked by rock’n’roll, which had created new tribes, but Beatlemania really hurt them, teenagers finally had something created by their own kind and many now reckoned jazz for dancing was no longer required. Their enthusiasm for this sound was on a different scale to oprevious fads. When The Beatles announced two shows at the Empire Theatre in Liverpool in December 1963, the queue for tickets stretched for nearly a mile. British jazz had been enjoying a decade long boom, especially in London, but players as accomplished as Tubby Hayes, Dizzy Reece and Don Rendell suddenly found their livelihoods slashed as The Streatham Rhythm Club, the Boathouse Bop Club in Kew and the like - places which had sprung up in the ‘50s and thrived during the trad and skiffle crazes - were suddenly closing altogether or becoming Discotheques and Beat Clubs. Even worse, sax player Ronnie Scott the owner of Soho’s premier jazz club - who would once have routinely booked homegrown acts, his comrades in the form - found that audiences stopped coming to see anything but visiting American players and singers, and adjusted his booking policy accordingly. Jazz in London and the provinces was effectively driven underground. (Scott himself would provide the only direct intersection between The Beatles and jazz when he played the sax solo on Lady Madonna - a song bearing a marked similarity to Humphrey Lyttleton’s Bad Penny Blues - and was reportedly annoyed that so little of his contribution ended up on the final record.)

To survive, jazz musicians had to compromise, play sessions, join orchestras and ensembles, compose library and production music rather than straight jazz material. Many of those who persevered with pure jazz would double down on modernism and narrow their potential audience to real aficionados. Those dabbling in the commercial world had, sooner or later, to admit the public had a point about the catchiness of Beatles songs. They wrote decent, highly recognisable melodies, they utilised interesting chord changes. Vocalists quickly slipped hepped-up Beatle material into their sets and the guys making easy listening and lounge jazz realised that they could attract attention, and airplay, by including Lennon & McCartney songs. Vocal titan Ella Fitzgerald was a surprise early adopter, having a sizeable hit with an energetic swing at Can’t Buy Me Love.

1964’s A Hard Days Night was one of the first Lennon/McCartney compositions to become commonplace in commercial jazz circles. Firstly, it was the title song of a hit movie, so arrangers preparing albums of move themes - a trusty stand-by concept in the early ‘60s - were inevitably drawn to it. The melody swung well and sounded good played by a horn section, the changes provided ample scope for soloists.

By 1966, interest in The Beatles had passed fever pitch, and had moved beyond the screamagers into more sophisticated circles. It was de rigeur to have a take on them, it felt as if every lounge singer or venerated pro was swinging Norwegian Wood or Drive My Car from Rubber Soul. Sinatra’s favourite arrangers Billy May and Nelson Riddle had turned to Michelle and Yesterday as additions to the ballad canon, though Sinatra himself was still proving resistant. (He caved eventually though, as we shall see.)

As the Beatles began dabbling with psychedelia and Dylan-style, non-love songs, finger-snapping cheerfulness didn’t necessarily square with their material any longer. Obviously, anyone swinging Eleanor Rigby was missing the point, but that didn’t stop people trying. Ella Fitzgerald attempted, of all things, Savoy Truffle. No one was saved.

Purists on either side of the Beatle/jazz fence will argue that combining these two beautiful things cannot work: it’s an experiment doomed to failure, like chocolate coating a sea-bass. But dig deep and there are delicious results to be found. I've gathered some of them here in a non-definitive survey of intriguing examples of this tricky hybrid. They are all single tracks, but if they come from entire albums of Beatle covers, those are assessed too.

Quincy Jones

A Hard Days Night

1964

Beginning in a similar mood to Ramsey Lewis’s forthcoming hit, The In Crowd, Quincy’s action-packed arrangement starts out relaxed and becomes brassier and sleazier as it progresses. A sax and trumpet section handles the verse melody, a piano takes it from “And when I get home to you” to the “feel alright” refrain, and trumpets look after the bridge. It’s a minute longer than the original, Q loads the extra time with detail: a drum solo, a clucking trumpet, a meandering sax break, a fluttering piano interlude and a big blaring finish. On the album, Golden Boy, it comes right before a sassy cover of Lee Morgan’s classic tune The Sidewinder, and it fits right in.


Ella Fitzgerald

Can’t Buy Me Love

1964

Taken from her Hello, Dolly! LP, this was a British Top 40 hit in 1964. It felt almost shocking at the time, the grande dame of American jazz doing something by our boys. She really goes for it too. The Johnny Spence Orchestra explodes into the intro at full-bore and Ella arrives several semi-tones higher than you expect, immediately tinkering with the melody to make it more exciting, keeping only the second of the three instances of the title line as nature intended. She leaps and tumbles, she scats and ad libs and seems to be really enjoying herself. “I may not have a lot to give, But what I’ve got I’ll give to you.” she growls and you’d better believe it.

Grant Green

I Want To Hold Your Hand

1966

Inspired by blues and Charlies Christian and Parker, guitarist Grant Green developed a simple, unflashy playing style with an R&B feel. He liked to stretch out in his recordings; thus, this bossa-flavoured rendition of the Beatles’ American breakthrough song - the title track of an otherwise bopping album - is explored over seven unhurried minutes, with Green taking up the theme over Larry Young’s padding organ stabs and a slinky tenor (handled by Hank Mobley), before breaking into a lengthy solo. Mobley takes a solo too, then Green returns for the theme once more. His only slightly more anxious nine-minute take on A Day In the Life (from 1970’s Green Is Beautiful) is also worth a spin.

Count Basie

Help!

1966

Album: Basie’s Beatle Bag ***

VERVE

Basie’s brand of big-band swing survived for decades by aiming at a broad audience. He shamelessly adopted fads - bossa nova, James Bond, The Beatles - to freshen his fanbase when his fortunes were waning in the 1960s. Jazz critics like to draw a veil over this album, but Chico O’Farrill’s arrangements are spirited and full of good moments. A full-throttle horn section blasts out the opening here, before Basie interprets the verse like an old stride tune, then the chorus returns as a cha cha cha. A sax solos over the changes before the full horns return. It’s exciting, though does feel as if the Fab Four have been shot back twenty years to World War II. The album is patchy but a similar arrangement of Hold Me Tight works well, as does I Wanna Be Your Man recast as the Batman theme and Basie at the organ for a slinky Can’t Buy Me Love.


Willie Bobo

Michelle

1966

Sooner or later some Beatles songs were bound to fall into irrelevance and Michelle is arguably one of them, its jejeune semi-sophistication having dated poorly. Almost no one’s singing it now. But it remains a cute melody, as proven by Puerto Rican percussionist Willie Bobo, who recognised its latin quality and samba-ed it into an irresistible floor filler, one year after the original, on his superb Verve album, Uno Dos Tres 1-2-3. Sax and trumpet double up for the melody and gradually work up a steamy sweat until the players bark “Michelle! Ma belle!” and Bobo tumbles into a rattling timbale solo. It’s impossible to sit still while it’s playing.


The London Jazz Four

Things We Said Today

1967

Album: Take A New Look At The Beatles *****

POLYDOR

This may be the single most successful exercise in recording a whole album of Beatle-inspired jazz. It’s entertaining, witty, tastefully played by the alternative Fab Four - Mike, Ron, Len and Brian - and treats the source material with affection. Granted, there’s a novelty aspect to it, as the on-the-nose cover art would suggest, probably designed to sell to musical tourists, and it is soft, loungey, TV theme jazz, not Bitches Brew. That said, it makes you smile, swings like mad, and includes at least a couple of masterpieces.

A hushed, stately-paced Rain played on vibraphone and glockenspiel by Ron Forges is just gorgeous, as is a super-slow From Me To You, and then there’s this polished gem, Things We Said Today reimagined as a busy samba and taken at quite a clip. Pianist Mike McNaught plays a trilling, Dudley Moore-ish solo and bassist Brian Moore and drummer Len Clarke (“the dishy one,” according to the liner notes) attack their parts like it’s almost closing time.

Elsewhere, there’s a be-bop paced Please Please Me, a waltz-time Hard Days Night and liner writer Steve Race accurately notes that his least favourite Beatle tune, Yellow Submarine, brushes up surprisingly well. I Feel Fine on a harpsichord might feel like a bit of a stretch, but the hook and bridge works fine on vibes. A sweetly swinging Norwegian Wood given a Take Five feel is a CD bonus track worth hearing too.

As anonymous, workaday cash-ins go, this takes some beating.



Wes Montgomery

A Day In The Life

1967

The master of jazz guitar turns the climax of Sgt Pepper into a chilled slice of late-night drama thanks to flashy arranger Don Sebesky and noted producer of upscale jazz, Creed Taylor. It’s a simple bass, drums and guitar trio embellished with occasional piano (Herbie Hancock) and surging orchestral parts - Sebesky’s forté - which rise up and crash like a wave over the track. Wes’s interpretation of McCartney’s “woke up, fell out of bed” section is delightful, after which the orchestra swells again and fades away, taking the track with it. The original’s climactic heft is lost - there’s no final, sarcophagus-closing chord - but it’s a nicely atmospheric take on an imposing tune. It became the title track of a 1967 album, which also includes a tastefully restrained Eleanor Rigby alongside non-Beatles material. Montgomery also assays, you’ll never guess, I’ll Be Back, on the following year’s Road Song album, plus a tune that was already a chestnut, Yesterday, which Sedesky tees-up with a gimmicky Elizabethan intro for chamber orchestra and recorders.

Paul Desmond

Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da

1968

It’s a shame that one of jazz’s most urbane and tasteful soloists, the velvet-toned alto alumnus of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, should pick one of the Beatles’ hokiest tunes to blow over. But he does it well. Taken from his album, Summertime, it’s a sprightly two minute canter over a cha-cha rhythm that includes a cheeky phrase from Hey Jude for good measure. Desmond would indeed spend a whole album interpreting the tunes of a single pop act, but he chose Simon & Garfunkel, for a record called Bridge Over Troubled Water, which is well worth hearing, probably more so than this...

Ramsey Lewis

Cry Baby Cry

1969

Album: Mother Nature’s Son ****

CADET

Just a month after The White Album was issued, keyboard player Ramsey Lewis was hustled into the studio by producer and arranger Charles Stepney (Rotary Connection) to cut instrumental versions of ten songs from it. Lewis admitted that he hadn’t been much of a Fabs fan until Stepney made him listen to the whole record and showed him his extraordinary arrangements, which were recorded live with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra sounding eight miles high and wide. Lewis then added little Moog synthesiser interludes to the front of each track, a bold move in late ’68. The result, extraordinary work in just four weeks, is a strange, elaborate tribute that made the Top 10 on the Billboard Soul chart. This under-appreciated White Album tune provides an unexpected highlight to this album, which, after the Moog warm-up and a guitar and vibraslap intro, sees Lewis swinging the melody on electric piano in front of Stepney's vast string backdrop.

Ella Fitzgerald

Savoy Truffle

1969

Not strictly jazz, more a swinging soul take on George Harrison’s minor bit of fluff about scoffing a box of Good News chocs, and the ensuing toothache; a song that can’t really withstand too much weight. This arrangement, based around electric piano, and something close to the original brass part, is coolly funky. Ella’s entry: “Cream tangerine” is slightly off-pitch and she doesn’t entirely recover her composure thereafter, probably because, unless she was an aficionado of mass-market British confectionary, she has no idea what she's singing about. Hearing one of vocal music’s all time greats repeating ”You’ll have to have them all pulled out after the Savoy Truffle” becomes oddly poignant. She sounds way more comfortable singing Harry Nilsson’s lovely Open Your Window, the song which follows on Ella ,a spotty album of pop covers, but this track has its adherents, if only for its peculiarity value.


Sarah Vaughan

Blackbird

1981

Album: Songs Of The Beatles ***

ATLANTIC

Speaking of peculiar, here’s Ella’s great rival for the title of ‘America’s finest female jazz vocalist’, fronting a very idiosyncratic arrangement of a White Album highlight.

Fitzgerald and Vaughan were friends but had a professional rivalry that manifested mostly on Vaughan’s side. Ella had the more astute management, the urbane Norman Granz, who made a point of addressing Ella as ‘the greatest’ so often it eventually stuck in the public’s mind, despite the fact that she toured and recorded a little less than Vaughan, who was considered superior by many fellow-travellers, who’d dubbed her The Divine One and the Vaughan That Comes Up Like Thunder.

If Vaughan bristled about the media’s lazy acceptance of Fitzgerald as the greater singer, she also chaffed at being considered solely a jazz singer. She was well known for her tonal versatility, a cool, relaxed tone on her cocktail jazz albums, a brassier, almost operatic sound on show tunes.

She purposefully maintained parallel careers in jazz and pop for much of her peak years, signing a double contract with Mercury and later Roulette, which allowed her to alternate between disciplines. However, she’d often complain about the banality of the pop material she was offered, her pop hits, though presumably lucrative, could sometimes irritate her, and she’d refuse to sing them live.

By the time she hit the 1980s - and her mid-50s - the musical landscape had altered beyond all recognition. Her A&R men had not been sure what to bring her for some time. Her contracts had simply expired. She’d had a long recording hiatus, grinding around the country performing roughly the same set for many years. But then she got the chance to sign to Atlantic Records, a natural home, she imagined, considering what they’d achieved with Aretha Franklin. Ahmet and Neshui Ertegun were thrilled to have her and offered her any arranger or producer of her choice. She picked Marty Paich, with whom she’d worked fruitfully before. He brought along his son, David Paich of Toto. All well and good, but then came the strange decision to cut an album of Beatles songs, possibly because she wanted to try recording the cream of pop rather than novelty songs, but it was 1981, the reputation of the Beatles was hardly at its peak.

Nonetheless, the album proposed an intriguing new route for Sarah. In truth, t’s jazz only like Earth Wind & Fire are jazzy and occasionally feels as if someone is trying too hard to simultaneously modernise the artist and these songs. A low-temp, disco-slanted Eleanor Rigby is perhaps best left unheard (“Darning his sarx…in the night!…”) apart from Toots Thielemans’ harmonica outreach. Fool On the Hill works well, though, as a jazz funker. Sarah treats You Never Give Me Your Money to one of her more liberal melody readings. Then, I Want You (She’s So Heavy) sounds surprisingly good as a slap-bass-driven floor filler. George Harrison’s Something is delivered as a relaxed bossa nova with Brazilian star Marcos Valle doing a little vocal guest spot.

Taking the cake, however, is this version of McCarttney's understated lullaby of reacial solidarity, beginning with the sound of sawing wood to set up the tempo. No, really. The sawing continues under picked guitar. There’s a disco interlude after the first chorus, strings come in for the next one and Lee Ritenour peals out a guitar solo. The sawing wood returns and the sound of the cut block dropping signals the track’s end, before Sarah exhales as if the exertion of sawing and singing simultaneously was a bit much. I’ll say.

Vaughan took a keen interest in compiling this sweetly eccentric album and, for that reason, declared it to be one of her all-time favourite recordings, even though it didn't sell and she was immediately dropped by Atlantic.


George Benson

Here Comes The Sun / I Want You (She’s So Heavy)

1970

Album: The Other Side Of Abbey Road ****

A&M

Like Ramsey Lewis, George Benson took only weeks to cut his own album based entirely on one by The Beatles. Enthusiasm for the source inspired a fascinating record, possibly the coolest all-Beatle set ever cut, certainly superior to Booker T & the MGs similar exercise, McLemore Avenue.

Under the direction again of Creed Taylor and Don Sebesky (see Wes Montgomery above), Benson covers ten Abbey Road songs, most of them in medley pairs and played partly by a string quartet, partly by a star-studded jazz ensemble, showcasing both Benson’s vocal and guitar prowess. Come Together, bracketed by baroque snippets of Because, is both funky and smooth with a great sax solo by Sonny Fortune, Oh Darling is a revelation recast as a slow blues for voice and big band with creamy guitar soloing. It makes Paul’s shredding on the original seem like lily-gilding, the song’s simplicity is all it needs to be affecting.

But the rosette goes to this nine minute combo. A lyrical, rather sad Here Comes The Sun sung over piano and shiversome string quartet, morphs into an agitated, low-temperature I Want You (She’s So Heavy). Benson’s singing is a little wayward but conveys the song’s desperation. Things really pick up when Freddie Hubbard arrives on sylvan, plaintive trumpet and he and Benson trade blood-warm and ice-cool solos.


Carmen McCrae

Carry That Weight

1970

In a career spanning five decades Carmen McCrae established herself as one of jazz’s most outspoken and principled performers. Her fame lagged behind Fitzgerald and Vaughan but she earned great respect as the consummate club performer. Never one to suffer a fool, or a weak piece of material, she took vocal risks and her tone can be strident even on ballads - what critics Richard Cook & Brian Morton called her “beguiling surliness” - making some of her recordings hard going if you can’t trust her instinct. But her Just A Little Loving album on Atlantic, produced by Arif Mardin, is a soulful treat, including Jimmy Webb, Eddie Hinton and Laura Nyro songs alongside three Beatles tunes, Something, a tender Here There And Everywhere and this, the Slumbers/Weight/Money section of Abbey Road’s second side. Carmen follows her own groove as usual, almost contemptuous of the timing, but when she hits the line “Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight a long time” you totally believe her.



Nina Simone

Here Comes The Sun

1970

Nina Simone, the putative classical pianist forced to play jazz because of her colour, angrily resisted any kind of labelling, resented the attempt to market her as “the high-priestess of soul”, and played broadway, blues, folk, reggae and rock in her time. She was primarily a great interpreter of song and her version of George’s gentle masterpiece is jazz only in its relaxed groove, led by finger-cymbals, finger-clicks and brushed drums. With harpsichord, harp glissandos, strings and a vocal group, the focus of its arrangement is mostly easy-listening, the jazziest moment a short piano solo in which Nina displays her unusual blend of classical grace and swing. The most remarkable thing about the whole exercise is how gently Nina sings it, with an aching tenderness she didn't use much elsewhere, the “little darlin’”s and “it’s alright”s sounding like they’re directed at a child. It’s sublime.


Frank Sinatra

Something

1980

Alright, he wasn’t a jazzer, but Frank sure could swing, and he boasted the hippest phrasing in history. However, by the time he cut Trilogy: Past, Present & Future, a thumping triple album summing up his lifetime in song, he was more likely to be singing in front of string orchestras than dance bands. It’s a big one he uses here on this masterful reading of George Harrison’s lovely, but arguably underwritten song, to which Frank brings emotional gravitas inaudible in the original. Sinatra famously announced it as “the greatest love song of the past 50 years” which, I’d say is stretching it a bit, but, if sincere, may be the finest compliment ever paid by one superstar game-changer to another, because if anyone knew about great love songs of that period it was Sinatra. He went on to spoil it slightly by occasionally referring to it in concert as “a great Lennon McCartney song”. A year after Trilogy appeared, Harrison was using Sinatra’s lyrical tweak, “You stick around, Jack…” in concert. It was the most eloquent compliment he ever paid Sinatra in return. Admittedly, this has very little to do with jazz, but when it comes to the previous generation of jazz-borne entertainers addressing the impact of those unavoidable Liverpudlian interlopers, it may be the most striking example.


Gábor Szabó

I’ve Just Seen A Face

1969

Though coming up through jazz, an alumnus of bands fronted by Chico Hamilton, Gary McFarland (who arranged this track) and Charles Lloyd, Hungarian guitar player Szabó, when fronting his own music, played something largely non-categorisable: flashes of jazz mixed with soul, rock and Eastern European folk music. (His 1968 album Dreams is marvellous for this combination.) On an album called 1969, he tackled pop songs and included three Beatles compositions, of which this is the most interesting, because it’s an unusual song choice and because Szabó uses it to roam through various modes. He begins by simply picking, sounding a little like Steve Cropper and, indeed, a fine Booker T-style Hammond organ, played by Mike Melvoin, urges the funky lope to pick up pace. When Szabó re-enters he’s playing jazz, cascading runs and trills of it, before he breaks into some psych tones and a blues solo. By the end, the relationship to the original song is purely tangential, but it’s been a fun ride. A beautifully still In My Life earlier on the album is also excellent, if also barely jazz.

Tubby Hayes

Hey Jude

1970

Opening with a very sample-able drum break, Tubby’s Hey Jude is greasy, lightly swinging and a highlight from an album of pop songs, The Orchestra, made when Hayes, one of Britain’s prime tenor sax heroes for about 15 years by this time, was struggling to keep tabs on what his audience wanted and, indeed, what he required from life. Beset by career snags, personal problems and addictions that he hadn’t faced before in a largely charmed existence thus far, Hayes was only a few years from an early death when he made this record, not that you’d gather any of that from his performance on this song. He freewheels enthusiastically throughout the track and his runs are lovely, lifting from the melody like birds taking flight. Some criticised Hayes for too much facility, for not shutting up occasionally on outings like this, but he gives a joyous display here, lightly alluding to the gospel feel of the original, but ultimately giving the listener some idea of what freedom feels like with just a saxophone for company.


Chick Corea

Eleanor Rigby


McCoy Tyner

She’s Leaving Home


Diana Krall

And I Love Her

1995

There’s a Beatles tribute album of artists on the GRP label called (I Got No Kick Against) Modern Jazz. It being the ‘90s, it goes a bit saccharine and Kenny G in places, but its highlights come from three brilliant pianists keeping it simple. Corea’s solo reading of Rigby is beautiful in its adherence to the solemnity of the original and the rolling, ruminative quality he brings to his improvisation, a constant left hand phrase underpinning tight right-hand chord clusters and sparkling grace notes. (Corea has also cut an excellent, longer version with vibes player Gary Burton.) Mc Coy Tyner’s pretty, cocktail bar approach to what may be the Beatles’ saddest song, She's Leaving Home, might seem crass at first but he soon enhances the melody’s yearning quality, it feels like someone reaching out for something they can’t grasp, just like the song’s anguished parents. Diana Krall takes And I Love Her (Him) at the sleepiest possible pace and gives it one of the sexiest goings over ever heard. Like Sinatra, Krall extracts something from this song that may not even be in there, McCartney’s young-love ditty is miraculously transformed into an adult, smoking, ache of desire. Apart from anything else, it’s hard not to see her husband Elvis Costello in a new light after this!


Brad Mehldau

Dear Prudence

2002

Dear Prudence is a tune that’s been fruitfully covered by several jazz artists, mainly because the haunting simplicity of the melody has a key-less, modal feel to it, the see-sawing guitar line and descending bass provide a great set-up to blow over. Pianist Mehldau no stranger to using pop as his starting point - having tackled Nick Drake, Radiohead and Doris Day songs over the years - uses it for all its worth, emphasising a minor feel in the bass, while keeping the melody pretty straight, then the groove is untethered and Mehldau drifts into a sleepy improv that loses all sense of time and place, unravelling in a deliciously risky way until the call of the riff quietly resumes and he settles back on earth to reprise the melody. The album this comes from, Largo, also includes a medley of Wave and Mother Nature’s Son (and his terrific nine-minute Paranoid Android). Also worth seeking out, Mehldau’s gorgeous solo rendition of Martha My Dear recorded live in 2011.


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