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Michael Jackson & Jimmy Smith to Stevie Wonder & Dizzy Gillespie — My Top Ten Jazz/Pop Encounters

Michael Jackson & Jimmy Smith to Stevie Wonder & Dizzy Gillespie — My Top Ten Jazz/Pop Encounters

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The bass players that I worked with before just kind of played through it like four beats to the bar, you know, polka-dotting along. And they couldn't see the shapes of the music or where the pressure points were. They couldn't grasp it. So you had to wait for somebody like Jaco to come along who had one foot in rock 'n' roll and one foot in jazz.
—Joni Mitchell
It's a good bet that most of us have heard people say they don't like jazz, or even worse, drop the H-bomb, "I hate jazz." If you choose to engage, the key is to tread lightly and tailor an approach that considers the tastes and sensibilities of the other person. The "So You Don't Like Jazz" column explores ways to do just that.

One of my go-to approaches is finding common ground, and pop music is perhaps the sweetest fruit growing there. Equally important, it's low-hanging fruit and ripe for picking. There are quite a few examples of jazz musicians making cameo appearances on pop recordings. Jazz musicians who do a lot of studio work are another possibility, for example, bassist Nathan East on Daft Punk's "Get Lucky." This list (not a ranking) focuses primarily on pop music, and excludes some otherwise obvious possibilities, such as rock artists Steely Dan and Santana mentioned in previous columns. Feel free to share some other possibilities in the comments section.

1. Michael Jackson & Jimmy Smith

Although this list isn't a raking, this pairing would be a worthy contender for the top spot. Released in September of 1987, the single "Bad" reached the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 list in October and spent two weeks there. The critically acclaimed accompanying short film/music video was directed by Martin Scorsese and was shown on CBS television at prime time—it's indelibly etched in the memory of millions of people.

Not widely known is the fact that Jimmy Smith was recruited to provide the organ solo. Jimmy Smith's style of playing the Hammond B3 made him one of the most imitated musical artists on the planet for several decades, right up there with Elvis (Jackson's father-in-law.) Thankfully, in 1990 critic/journalist Dennis Polow had the foresight to preserve a bit of music history and did an interview with Jimmy Smith. That interview revealed some interesting details of Smith's involvement with Michael Jackson. After Jackson decided to add an organ solo to "Bad," he and producer Quincy Jones both agreed it had to be Jimmy Smith. It must have been a pretty sweet gig—in the interview Smith admitted that for the kind of money he made, he would take a helicopter to the studio to play for Jackson if he ever called again.

Here's something else few people know. According to Smith, Michael Jackson was a jazz fan: "Perhaps if the music Michael's doing stopped selling, he'd go into jazz. He could do it if he wanted to—he's got the talent, and that's the music he listens to." Somewhere in the Michael Jackson music vaults there is a treasure we're unlikely to ever hear—the original 20 minute solo Smith laid down in the studio. It was later edited down to about a minute and "electronically altered through 10 other keyboards and synthesizers." Smith said he didn't mind, it only bothers him when people "use all of that stuff to cover up the fact that they can't play."

So if you manage to get a Michael Jackson fans interested in Jimmy Smith, what music might you share with them? Here's one out of left field for your consideration, "Elegy for a Duck" from Smith's Peter & the Wolf (Verve, 1966) arranged by Oliver Nelson. Any other suggestions?

2. Phil Carmen & Brian Auger

Another organ solo from a jazz great, and like "Bad" above, "City Walls" was released in 1987. There the similarity ends—I suspect few of you have ever heard this song. Brian Auger is of course well known in jazz circles. Starting out as a self-taught pianist who played by ear (initially in the keys of C and G), Auger made a name for himself on the London music scene in the mid-1960s. His attraction to jazz motivated him to deepen his musical vocabulary, which he did with the aid of instructional books and interaction with jazz horn players. Before fusion was even a "thing" Auger was moving in that direction, but he came at it from a rock perspective.

In the '70s his band, Brian Auger and the Oblivion Express, transported a lot of rock fans to a sweet spot where R&B, soul, a funky rock foundation and jazz influences intersected. Things really jelled once Auger began doing the vocals himself. Auger's vocals were double tracked and used the recording studio to great effect. It worked and fit the music superbly, as did Auger's organ sound. No doubt Phil Carmen recognized that sound would work for him too.

When I moved from America to Europe in the '80s, I knew virtually nothing about German rock music, let alone German pop music. So I would engage new friends and ask about their favorite music. That's how I discovered Phil Carmen, when a friend lent me City Walls (Metronome, 1987.) Lyrically and musically it's a very solid '80s pop/rock album, which did fairly well in German speaking countries—I ended up buying my own copy. As is my custom, first things first, I checked the credits in the liner notes and was pleasantly surprised to see Brian Auger's name.

The single "City Walls" from the album closes out with a 60-second solo by Auger reminiscent of the Oblivion Express—in fact with a few tweaks that song could have fit in their set list. Phil Carmen is an interesting fellow, he's Canadian by heritage, born in Frankfurt, Germany, but grew up in Lucerne, Switzerland, where he studied guitar for four years at the music conservatory. In addition to performing, early on he opened a recording studio, eventually securing a record deal with a German distributor. He now lives in Florida where he operates a recording studio. "City Walls" deals with the struggles of the homeless living on the street. Here is a portion of the lyrics:

No place to go, y'know it's dog eat dog, an hustle to survive
Back alley denizens, no fixed abode for transients in time

Sleepin' on steam grates, takin' all the heat
Sheer anonymity on naked faces

In some McDonalds, makin' coffee last an hour or two—or more
Or in a library, they're hidin,' warmin' or readin' up the latest news

"City Walls" music by Phil Carmen lyrics by Simon Dale Sanders

As was the custom on many European TV shows, the above clip was performed to playback. However, the actual touring band for the promotion of City Walls recorded a show at the Montreux Jazz Festival. It was released as an album Phil Carmen—Live In Montreux (Metronome, 1987.) It was released as "Jazz, Pop." This live clip features solos by jazz veteran Dick Morrissey, sax, Brian Auger, organ, and Phil Carmen, guitar, and gives you a better feel for Phil Carmen's Swiss/jazz/pop.

3. The Beatles & Ronnie Scott

On February 3rd and 6th 1968, the Beatles were in the Abbey Roads studio recording "Lady Madonna." This was just before they flew to India for an extended meditation retreat with the Maharishi. The song was primarily written by Paul McCartney, and it actually has a connection to jazz. McCartney had been playing around on the piano trying to come up with a boogie-woogie tune, and was influenced by the song "Bad Penny Blues" by Humphrey Lyttelton. A dozen years earlier that record had been a major hit in the U.K., spending six weeks in the Top Twenty—the first jazz record to make it on their pop charts.

"Lady Madonna" was also influenced by Fats Domino, whom McCartney acknowledges he imitated for the vocal. In September of that year Fats Domino returned the favor and released an excellent cover of "Lady Madonna" which squeaked into the pop charts at #100—his last recording to make it on to the charts.

Once they were finished, the Beatles decided that the song could use some horns, and an overdub session was hastily organized and four horn players recruited. McCartney gave them no arrangements and only vague instructions. One of them was Ronnie Scott on tenor sax. He is of course world famous for his jazz club in London (see my interview with John McLaughlin for his recollection of Scott and his club), and he was also a prominent British jazz musician. For four years after WWII Scott was in a band on the Queen Mary luxury Liner, and sailed regularly to New York City. As a result, he was exposed to bebop and influenced by Charlie Parker, and was one of the first British jazz musicians to move in that direction.

Although the footage in the clip below shows the Beatles recording in Abbey Road Studios, it is not a recording of "Lady Madonna." Rather it is repurposed footage of them recording "Hey Bulldog," hence John Lennon is playing piano instead of McCartney. The Beatles —Lady Madonna, with Ronnie Scott.

4. Elvis Costello & Chet Baker

In 1983 at a party attended by Elvis Costello, music producer Clive Langer played a song he'd written for the progressive/pop artist Robert Wyatt (onetime drummer of Soft Machine.) He mentioned to Costello, whom he also produced, that he was having trouble with the lyrics. Long story short, Costello wrote new lyrics and ended up recording the ballad for his hit album Punch the Clock (Columbia, 1983.) Costello, a fan of Chet Baker, managed to get him to do a solo on the recording. In the interview below, Costello speaks at length about the song, his insights into Baker and their work together—Costello also did a guest vocal on a Chet Baker television special recorded at Ronnie Scott's Club in London.

5. Shanice & Brandford Marsalis

Let's go back in time to May 25, 1992. All eyes were on Jay Leno, who was officially taking over The Tonight Show from Johnny Carson after his 30-year run. On the bill were Billy Crystal and the then 19-year-old singer Shanice, who at the time had the #1 song on the pop charts, "I Love Your Smile." This was also the premiere of the new Tonight Show Band under the leadership of Branford Marsalis, who had been featured on the recording and music video of "I Love Your Smile." On this live version, Marsalis doesn't stop after his solo and continues making magic til the end. If there had been social media in those days, #BlowBrandfordBlow would have been trending the next day—check it out.

6. David Bowie & Pat Metheny Group

In 1984 Pat Metheny did the film music for The Falcon And The Snowman. He was nearly finished with the score when the director suggested they bring in David Bowie for a song based on the theme music. Metheny at that point was no longer following popular music closely, and was not familiar with Bowie's work. After familiarizing himself with Bowie's music, he thought it was a perfect fit—the theme was in Bowie's register and matched his vibe.

The director, John Schlesinger, organized a screening for Bowie with Metheny present. Bowie brought a yellow legal pad and jotted down a list of potential song titles as he watched the film—in the end over one hundred. The director saw "This is not America" and said that was great because the line was used in the film. Bowie immediately said, then let's go with that. Metheny has described Bowie as being incredibly impressive in person, and called him, "one of the most brilliant human beings that has ever lived."

Shortly after their meeting, Metheny and his band flew to Montreux, Switzerland where Bowie lived and had a studio: "we spent three days with him, and man, it was like being around Sonny Rollins or something. He was just an unbelievable master of how to do that kind of thing." Technically this isn't a jazz cameo, but it is a gorgeous example of jazz and pop artists finding common ground.

7. Joni Mitchell & Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny, & Don Alias

Joni Mitchell is a poet/painter/singer/songwriter who evolved from a folk artist to become one of the most influential musical artists of her generation. She fused elements of pop, rock, jazz and classical music to match her poetic lyrics that might go anywhere: cynical and dark, brutally honest, provocative, joyful, tender, or humorous—the entire range of human emotions.

She eventually recognized jazz musicians added more colors to her musical palette. She sought players who could realize her vision. The player who best personified those qualities for her was Jaco Pastorius, of whom she said: "The bass players that I worked with before just kind of played through it like four beats to the bar, you know, polka-dotting along. And they couldn't see the shapes of the music or where the pressure points were. They couldn't grasp it. So you had to wait for somebody like Jaco to come along who had one foot in rock 'n' roll and one foot in jazz. And when Jaco came in on the dates, he was doing what I wanted, which was a more classical counterpoint to my melodies—and leaving space—it was personality that deserved to be in the foreground. We were conceptually kindred."

The clip below is a live version of a the song "Coyote" which was released as a single, but failed to chart. For her 1979 Shadows & Light Tour she assembled a heavyweight band with jazz players: Jaco Pastorius, bass, Don Alias, drums, Pat Metheny, guitar, Lyle Mays, keyboards, Michael Brecker, sax. Pat Metheny didn't seem to have particularly enjoyed the experience:

"It was a very different tour for me, because it was more of a rock tour where you play one night and then you are off two nights. I was use to working continuously and not having that kind of time on my hands. We also played these big halls and there were limousines and Lear jets and the trappings of big-time music business. Honestly, that all made me extremely uncomfortable... it was great to work with Joni. She is such a fine singer and songwriter. The band was a little poorly suited for her. The band was like this Ferrari that was limited to just driving around the block. We never got to really do what we were capable of doing."

The tour, album, and DVD exposed a very large pop/rock audience to some top jazz artists, for that reason it is part of the list.

8. The Rolling Stones & Sonny Rollins

The single "Waiting on a Friend" from the album Tattoo You (Rolling Stones, 1981) made it to #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. The accompanying video was produced for the then "new" MTV, it was in fact the The Rolling Stones first MTV video. Given Charlie Watts' love of jazz, you might think it was his idea to enlist Sonny Rollins for the sax solo, but here is some background Mick Jagger shared in 1985:

"I had a lot of trepidation about working with Sonny Rollins. This guy's a giant of the saxophone. Charlie said, 'He's never going to want to play on a Rolling Stones record!' I said, 'Yes he is going to want to.' And he did and he was wonderful. I said, 'Would you like me to stay out there in the studio?' He said, 'Yeah, you tell me where you want me to play and DANCE the part out.' So I did that. And that's very important: communication in hand, dance, whatever. You don't have to do a whole ballet, but sometimes that movement of the shoulder tells the guy to kick in on the beat."

9. Seals & Crofts & Corea & Clarke

"Stars" was the first song on The Longest Road (Warner Brothers, 1980), Seals & Crofts final album with that label. They and their producer, guitarist Louie Shelton were jazz lovers, so perhaps they decided to realize a fantasy on the way out. During an interview, I had a chance to ask Shelton about that session:

AAJ: Maybe the biggest surprise came on the last album, with Chick Corea on piano, Stanley Clarke on bass, and Jim Seals back on sax. How did you pull that off?

Louie Shelton:You know, it was just a phone call, it wasn't hard to get them there. The amazing thing with that whole session was that we went through three reels of tape doing takes, and every take was unbelievable. And every take was different. We were having such a good time just watching and listening, we didn't want it to end. It was mind-boggling how good those guys were.

There is an extended solo by Corea and he comes back to close the song out.

10. Stevie Wonder & Dizzy Gillespie

Last, but certainly not least, we have the pairing of two musical icons, Stevie Wonder and Dizzy Gillespie. Although Stevie Wonder is not generally thought of as a jazz artist, from his earliest days he listened to and played jazz. Legendary figures such as Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock have sung his praises and attested to his jazz chops. Jazz flauist Bobbi Humphrey whose friendship with Wonder dates back to their teenage years, shared this: "He has always been a jazz obsessive. At the same time that he was doing his apprenticeship at Motown, aged 14, 15, he was also playing along to albums by John Coltrane and Bill Evans, copying their solos, working on his jazz chops."

"Ladies and gentlemen, I have the pleasure to present on my album, Mr. Dizzy Gillespie. Blow!" That's Stevie Wonder from the song, "Do I Do" from the album Stevie Wonder's Original Musiquarium I (Tamla,1982.)

Credits & Sources

Dennis Polkow / Jimmy Smith Interview
Pat Metheny Interview
Joni Mitchell website
Pat Metheny website
The Guardian—Stevie Wonder, Jammin Jazz Set Online

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