Deconstructing popular contemporary songs seems to be the current flavour of the month. From the Bad Plus' rock-heavy interpretations of the Pixies to Brad Mehldau's inventive look at Radiohead, artists are realizing that not only is there a wealth of modern material out there to replace the Great American Songbook, but the approach has resulted in drawing a younger audience. Listeners who are less-than-likely to warm to yet another version of "If I Were a Bell" are happier to hear jazz artists tackle "Kissed by a Rose."
Pianist Rachel Z is the lighter, more lyrical alternative to the Bad Plus. On her new record, Everlasting , she delivers a programme of material by artists including Smashing Pumpkins, Sade, and her current employer, Peter Gabriel. With an approach that is more delicate, and imbued with a pop sensibility that doesn't forsake her roots in Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal and Keith Jarrett, Z manages to show that, contrary to the belief of more staid jazzbos, songs from the past thirty years do have potential for reinvention, reharmonization and improvisation.
From her Tyner-inflected approach to George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun," you know that Z is remaining reverential enough to appeal to established listeners while, at the same time, thinking of a younger crowd. If the idea is to play songs that your target audience recognize, then it's important to make the melodies dominate, even if the tunes are rhythmically and harmonically reworked. Z always puts the theme front and centre, whether it be on Sting's "Fields of Gold," Gabriel's "Red Rain" or, more adventurously, Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun."
Joining Z are drummer/co-producer Bobbie Rae and, more importantly, Tony Levin on assorted basses and Chapman Stick. Few fans of Levin's recorded and touring work with Gabriel and King Crimson, as well as countless sessions for artists including John Lennon, Paul Simon and David Bowie, realize that he started his career in jazz, working with artists like Gary Burton, Mike Manieri and Herbie Mann. Thirty years may have passed since his last jazz gig, but Levin still knows how to swing; and teamed with Rae's drumming, which bridges subtlety and power, Z has a flexible and intuitive rhythm section.
Z's piano work takes her obvious roots in Evans, Corea and Hancock and creates a lighter, more accessible sound. While she is an imaginative player, she keeps the spirit of the song close to the front at all times, even copping some of Larry Carlton's signature guitar solo on Steely Dan's "Kid Charlemagne."
The only complaint might be that her approach is a tad lightweight; she can clearly play but could sometimes afford to be more liberal with the material. Still, by delivering a contemporary album that is honest and unassuming, Z may well draw in a younger audience. And if but one in ten of these listeners go on to explore other jazz avenues, then Everlasting will have been a complete success.