Let me be the first to admit that I am prejudiced against jazz musicians covering the Beatles. This is in no way related to the source material: like all sentient mammals on the Planet Earth, I adore pretty much every note the Fabs recorded. It's just that their material is so weighted with cultural and nostalgic baggage that (unlike standards like, say, "All the Things You Are ) it retains too much of its Beatleness to be just a set of chords: it's them. Or it's usAbbey Road and Revolver have inhabited our collections so long that they're intertwined in our lives.
It only took Dave Kikoski's gorgeous piano intro and Brian Melvin's hypnotic tabla pattern on "Yes It Is, the opening track of BeatleJazz's third CD, With a Little Help From Our Friends, to confound my cynical expectations. BeatleJazz is composed of Melvin on drums and tablas, Kikoski on piano and synth, and Larry Grenadier on bass. The core group is augmented by the "friends of the CD's title: John Scofield and Mike Stern on guitar; Mike and Randy Brecker on tenor sax and trumpet, respectively; and on four tracks, Boris Koslov substituted on bass. The results are for the most part delightful. Many jazz-covers-rock albums allow the musicians to sleepwalk through bland, jazz-lite arrangements, content to let the familiarity of the material sell the product. Not here: the performances teem with deep concentration and the arrangements are imaginative and very, very smart.
For example, "Strawberry Fields Forever sheds the baroque studio experimentation of the 1967 single but is otherwise played straight. Kikoski's piano does the melodic heavy lifting, and when the group plays the coda (Grenadier's bowed bass taking the place of the groaning strings of the original), one is struck dumb by how wonderful, how novel that section of the song is. The lack of harmonic development on John Lennon's solo rant "Working Class Hero is dealt with by going pedal-point: Mike Brecker and Kikoski channel Coltrane and McCoy Tyner, respectively, and remake the song as a searching, beseechingly modal ten-minute prayer.
Not everything is that wonderful. Randy Brecker and Kikoski do their best on Lennon's "Imagine, and very nearly pull it offnot surprisingly, as a balladbut here the song is just too intractable. Even though it's a solo Lennon composition, its utopian sentiment makes it the most Beatle number here in the way it signifies so much more than its words or melody. Brecker's playing that melody so faithfully, right down to the two notes of Lennon's vocal "you-hoo, doesn't help. On the other hand, John Scofield absolutely nails "I Will ; this Paul McCartney number's chords lend themselves well to jazz and Sco's solo is the best he's done in some timesweet, spacious, and wise.
It's a tribute to the quality of this album that my unfortunate bigotries could be so thwarted. Too bad BeatleJazz can't immediately do another CD: I'm eager to hear their versions of "All Things Must Pass and "She Said She Said.
1. Yes It Is 2. Piggies 3. Imagine 4. Strawberry Fields Forever 5. I Will 6. Working Class Hero 7. A Hard Day's Night 8. Across the Universe 9. Lovely Rita 10. And I Love Her 11. The End 12. Chains
Brian Melvin: drums, tabla; Dave Kikoski: piano, synthesizer; Larry Grenadier: bass (#1-2,4-5,8-9); Boris Koslov: bass (#3,6-7,10); John Scofield: guitar (#2,5); Mike Brecker: tenor saxophone (#6); Mike Stern: guitar (#7,10); Randy Brecker: trumpet (#3)