Some people insist that contemporary music offers little grist for the imagination, but increasing numbers of jazz artists are proving that's simply not so. From Brad Mehldau to Dave Douglas and Herbie Hancock, new takes on material by artists as diverse as Radiohead, Nick Drake and BjÃrk are becoming an everyday occurrence.
Add Australian-based Mark Isaacs to the list of artists who are reinventing contemporary song. Isaacs, a pianist/composer who is equally comfortable in classical and jazz worldsthat, in itself, a more common occurrence as wellapplied his imagination to traditional standards on his last release, Keeping the Standards (Vorticity, 2004). On Visions, however, he sources material from contemporary artists like Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. While the liner notes to this new trio recording refer to the nostalgia quotient of songs like John Denver's "Leaving on a Jet Plane" and Paul Simon's "Sounds of Silence," it would be a mistake to assess the success of Vision solely on that basis.
It may be true that baby boomers can't help but feel something when they hear Taylor's "Fire and Rain" or Ewan MacColl's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." But Visions works because it combines a respect for melody with interpretive invention that moves the material away from a literal interpretation.
Still, some of the material is approached more faithfully than othersor perhaps Isaacs' reharmonizations are simply so subtle that it just seems that way. His take on Wonder's title track feels close to the original, but then that may be because Wonder's own harmonic language has always been more advanced than his contemporaries. Still, Isaacs gives the ballad a more delicate ambience; bassist Ben Waples and drummer James Hauptmann's suggestive textural accompaniment is implicit, rather than direct.
Other tracks go farther afield. The light Latin rhythm of Lennon/McCartney's "Fool on the Hill" may not mask the instantly recognizable theme, but when it reaches the chorus, Isaacs' harmonic underpinning is more adventurous, as is the endinga Jarrett-like vamp that moves into stronger groove territory. The trio treats "Both Sides Now" even more liberally. The changes, supported by Hauptmann's delicate brushwork, are so altered that, while the melody is there, you have to listen closely for it, especially during the chorus where Isaacs takes the song to an uncharacteristically dark and brooding place.
The trio's look at "Fire and Rain" is closer to home, both in the folksy harmonies and the delicate but ever-present backbeat, as is "Leaving on a Jet Plane." But whether a faithful rendition of "Moon River" or an atmospheric look at "Sounds of Silence," the overall ambience of this music is elegant and understated. Isaacs has proved in the past that he's got chops to burn. With Visions, however, he prefers to let the music speak in a more delicate and sometimes elusive fashion, remaining faithful and proving that contemporary song is just as open to interpretation as the often-overworked Great American Songbook.