All you need is jazz?

The Beatles helped wipe jazz off the face of popular music but quite a few jazz artists have covered their songs, as Neil McKim reflects

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When I was growing up we had a box of Beatles singles with no covers. My brother bought this old stock cheaply after an IRA mainland bomb had blown up our local record shop and the covers had been burnt off!

Among these was The Beatles song ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ – and it stood out because it was actually the version by Ella Fitzgerald on Verve. This was a full-on dazzling big band take of the band’s hit single and I thought it was brilliant! The original Beatles song, of course, takes a 12-bar blues as its base, so clearly lends itself perfectly for a jazz cover version such as this.

Recently a couple of cover versions have arrived in the office, two old and one new. The two old ones are on a Duke Ellington Original Album Series box set (released by WCJ), on the disc Ellington ’66, which includes his versions of ‘All My Loving’ and ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, arranged by long-time collaborator Billy Strayhorn. Neither of these are what you would expect and the liner notes deliciously sum the project up in its era-context…

‘Mess around with the songs by The Beatles? Duke doesn’t mind. Why shucks folks. Duke’s men can make anything swing’

So does he succeed? The former gets treated to an effective Latin makeover, which works well, while the latter – which had been the hit that had spearheaded The Beatles invasion of the US in February 1964 – gets a bizarre muted brass melody, and personally I can’t decide whether it really works: but it’s certainly a curiosity.

We have also been sent an excellent cover version of Revolver’s ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, on the album Free At Last by New York jazz drummer Tobias Gebb and his Unit 7 ensemble. With the help of sitar player Neel Murgai, this version, although distinctively a jazz arrangement, really does justice to the original, blending a psychedelic haze with straight-ahead jazz.

There’s a host of other jazz treatments of Beatles hits, from right across the jazz spectrum, whether its pop-jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis’s take on ‘Day Tripper’, Herbie Hancock’s protracted version of ‘Norwegian Wood’, Jaco Pastorius’s beautiful ‘Blackbird’ (featuring Toots Thielemans on harmonica), or Brad Mehldau’s classically tinged jazz tribute ‘Martha My Dear’. And there’s always the kitsch – so bad it’s bad, really bad, and best avoided – Dance to the Beatles Hits in the Glenn Miller Sound
by The Hiltonaires.

Have you heard a Beatles jazz cover version that makes you want to twist and shout – or one that simply wants to make you cry Help! If so, it’d be great to hear.

Neil McKim is production editor at BBC Music Magazine

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