With jazz ascending like smoke from nightclubs into concert halls and pop music fragmenting into dozens of sub-genres, it seems as if the wall between pop and jazz has never been higher. No matter how open-minded today's pop music fan is, it's unlikely that the kids camping out in front of Tower Records for the latest U2 release are the same ones tuning in to Wynton Marsalis' jazz programs on NPR. But this seemingly insurmountable wall was constructed only in the past half-century. Dig around the bandstand at any jazz gig for a dog-eared copy of the "Real Book," the revered bible of the jazz repertoire, and you'll notice that a good chunk of the standard tunes were originally pop songs from the '20s and '30s written by the likes of Cole Porter.
Taken with this in mind, jazz pianist Herbie Hancock's "The New Standard" isn't the pandering sellout or inexplicable misstep that jazz purists may think it is at first glance. Rather, his various interpretations of pop and rock classics from the last 30 years reveal an honest search for a new direction in jazz -- one that manages to break new ground while reconnecting to its roots.
Hancock first gained fame in the mid-'60s playing with the classic Miles Davis Quintet and is perhaps the only jazz artist today who could pull off an album like this one so successfully. Long before terms like "acid jazz" or "fusion" entered the musical lexicon, his music bridged the gap between jazz, funk, rock and whatever else floated his way. "The New Standard" smokes with the same intensity found on some of Hancock's best previous work, such as the '60s breakthrough "Maiden Voyage" and the '70s funk classic "Head Hunters." Leading a crack band assembled for this occasion -- one that mixes the rhythm section of fellow Davis alums Dave Holland and Jack Dejonnette with saxophonist Michael Brecker, guitarist John Scofield and percussionist Don Alias -- Hancock brings his nimble, funkified touch to tunes by Simon and Garfunkel, Stevie Wonder and Kurt Cobain, among others, with equally impressive results.
Covering today's pop tunes in the same manner as Charlie Parker covered Cole Porter does present a problem: No matter how great your love for the three-chord romp, Don Henley and Sade's tunes just aren't as harmonically rich as those penned by Jerome Kern, Porter and their Tin Pan Alley pals. But Hancock solves this problem by reworking each tune into an essentially new composition. The result is a version of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" that tacks the original lilting melody onto a different chord progression; a take on Simon and Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair" that switches the time signature, transforming the folk ballad into a bluesy, "Summertime"-esque workout; and a version of Henley's "New York Minute" so radically different that the former Eagle himself probably wouldn't recognize it if he were hit over the head with the liner notes.
But Hancock's approach doesn't always work. The background string section on Babyface's "When Can I See You" steers the tune dangerously close to easy-listening airspace, and Sade's "Love is Stronger than Pride" is saved only by a fiery Brecker sax solo. Still, in his best moments, as on Nirvana's "All Apologies" where he sets Cobain's plaintive melody to a beautiful sitar-piano duet, the arrangements burst with inventiveness and creativity.
During the second date of a 16-city U.S. tour promoting "The New Standard," Hancock proved to an enthusiastic San Francisco audience that the album is anything but a studio creation. With a trippy light show better suited to any of the handful of post-Grateful Dead bands currently making the rounds, Hancock led a touring quartet that included bassist Holland, drummer Gene Jackson and Saxophonist Craig Handy through torrid versions of several tunes from the album, throwing several jazz standards and a few of his own classic tunes into the mix. The band stretched the tunes in ways normally reserved for the freer arrangements of jazz standards -- "Norwegian Wood," for instance, featured an entrancing bass solo from Holland that used the simple melody as a launching point for some wonderfully ambitious harmonic exploration.
Closing the show with a funky, playful version of his own
"Cantaloupe Island" and an encore of "Maiden Voyage," Hancock
showed that he has lost none of the agility and open-mindedness
that have allowed him to stay fresh and relevant throughout his
35-year career. And as anyone who catches him live will attest,
the man who has already changed the face of jazz several times
just might be about to do it again.