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by Seth Colter Walls

October 1, 2012

Jazz Covers of Pop Smashes

by Seth Colter Walls  |  October 1, 2012

Some purists may find it easy to snicker at a jazz artist who is first discovered covering a pop song. But if it was good enough for John Coltrane -- who took Broadway show tunes like "My Favorite Things" and turned them into his own radical devices -- then the practice is good enough for me. Set The Robert Glasper Experiment loose on "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and it's like a two-for-the-price-of-one proposition: You get the melody, indelible as always, but also an expanded rhythmic framework courtesy of one of the best bands working at the moment (in either hip-hop or jazz).

In the same way, hearing pianist Brad Mehldau figure his way into an old Alice in Chains chestnut or a more recent Sufjan Stevens offering is more than a parlor trick -- it helps us reinvestigate how those familiar songs operate, especially when the vocals are removed. A slightly different enjoyment is to be found when you hear an undisputed instrumental master from the pop world given a chance to stretch out in an improvised context: as when, for example, Maceo Parker leads a German big band through the Stevie Wonder hit parade.

Jazz vocals have their place in pop interpretation, too. In recent years, the standout example of a small jazz ensemble tackling pop songs, vocals and all, would be the The Bad Plus' For All I Care, in which the trio joined up with singer Wendy Lewis and proved they could use their technique in the service of hits from Pink Floyd, The Flaming Lips and (again) Nirvana. The playlist above takes in all these cuts and more, including that old Coltrane run through Julie Andrews territory. None of these tracks pander or condescend. All of them swing.

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