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Bob Dylan: The Bard Of Jazz

Dan Bilawsky By

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Jazz and rock audiences, at their core, often expect two very different things when they attend a live performance. Jazz audiences thrive on the journey and in-the-moment magic that's created as a one-time-only occurrence, through a partially improvised art. Rock audiences, by and large, prefer to hear it like it sounds on the record. Jazz artists who play it safe at every performance don't usually earn respect from critics, fans and their peers, while rock artists who go out on a limb often end up alienating a segment of their fan base. Bob Dylan is one such artist.

Jazz and Bob Dylan are strange bedfellows, to say the least. Dylan's recorded output doesn't thrive on lengthy and impressive instrumental soloing, it doesn't rely on healthy doses of The Great American Songbook, it doesn't feature insane chord changes and extensions, and I seriously doubt anybody really wants to hear him scat. However, the art of improvisation does come into play, to the chagrin of some audience members, during his live performances. While Dylan always seems to include, at least, a couple of classics in his concerts, audience members can't always recognize them. Over time, the prophet of Hibbing, Minnesota has seen fit to take his tunes and bend them to his will, changing the structure, feel and phrasing of the music, to—occasionally—unrecognizable lengths. Is it jazz? No. Is it improvisation based on a structural pretext? Yes.

When Dylan goes out on a limb like this, night after night, he doesn't please everybody—and he doesn't always succeed—but he does prove to be a supreme artist willing to take chances...just like the musicians we admire most in jazz. I've attended two of his performances where things didn't connect, and a friend and co-worker of mine saw him perform and wryly stated that "Dylan sounded like Jimmy Durante on crack," but I've also attended a half dozen Dylan shows where his impeccable artistry won over everybody in the room—Dylan aficionado or not. While his catalog hasn't been mined to the nth degree like the naturally jazz-friendly songs of Joni Mitchell, Dylan's music has crept into the repertoire and some notable artists have tackled his tunes over the years. With that in mind, this edition of Old, New, Borrowed and Blue will focus on Dylan covers and attempt to address the topic of Bob Dylan as the bard of jazz.

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Nina Simone is viewed by some as a jazz singer, and some think of her as a soul singer, but others view her—like they view Dylan—as a singer of protest songs. When looking at her rich musical legacy, labels become irrelevant, but the performances live on. While she might best be remembered for songs like "Feeling Good," "Mississippi Goddam," "I Put A Spell On You" and "To Be Young, Gifted And Black," she also had a way with songs associated with more mainstream artists of the day, like The Beatles or Bob Dylan. Her version of "Just Like A Woman" greatly contrasted with Dylan's take—in instrumentation, feel and mood—but is just as magical.



While Dylan's famed recorded version of this song has an understated beauty to it, with his approach being simple in many ways, Simone's performance has greater depth and shows off her artistic range. After a short piano introduction, where Simone shows off her jazz chops, things settle in and a 12/8 drum groove controls the direction of the song. After Simone gets comfortable and delivers some bluesy vocals, a hint of organ finds its way into the mix, further upping the soul quotient here. As strings join in and the rhythm section builds with them, grandeur is the name of the game. Then, the intensity is pulled back a bit, so the song doesn't climax too early, and Simone follows suit as she rides her way through the rest of this soul-stirring performance. While Simone covered a wide range of songs and styles during her career, she had a way of making every song her own and this one is no exception.

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