This is a (very) expanded version of a piece that appeared in the Camden New Journal
The venerable Blue Note catalogue – home to timeless gems by Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Horace Silver, Donald Byrd and dozens of others – is one of the greatest archives in jazz history. The record label, having settled down after some turbulent times in past decades and now under the direction of Don Was, is not shy about exploiting its reputation as the guardian of a great jazz legacy nor in marking itself out as progressive label that looks forward as well as backwards. To serve these two masters, in 2020 it invited a raft of young UK jazz artists to revisit and remake tracks from the vaults, in the way Madlib and Us3 had done in the past. The result, Blue Note Re:imagined, was an enjoyable if widely varied set, where some artists restructured the songs/tunes entirely (as with Poppy Ajudha’s fast-and-loose reboot of Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man), while others played it pretty straight, such as Ezra Collective with its nicely woozy version of Wayne Shorter’s Footprints.
Later this month, available for pre-order now, comes Blue Note: Re-imagined II, where a fresh batch of up-and-coming tyros (Ego Ella May, Nubiyan Twist, Celeste etc) are let loose in jazz heaven. One of them, soul-jazz-R&B star Reuben James (Sam Smith, Disclosure, Roy Ayers, Joni Mitchell – in her living room! – and his own combos), admits that although it sounds like bliss for any jazz geek, the sheer width, breadth and heft of the heritage can be daunting. “Yeah, they called up and said I could choose anything from the Blue Note catalogue and I was like.. whoa. There’s just too much choice. It’s kind of overwhelming.”
I asked some of the other featured artists about the process of choosing and re-imagining a classic Blue Note track. Some were brief, others were, well, fulsome (yes, Nubiyan Twist) but all were insightful. The comments appear in the same order as the tracks on the album.
Yazz Ahmed “It” – From Chick Corea The Complete “IS” Sessions (2002).
RR: The original track is just 30 seconds long. It’s a fascinating album. How did you go about expanding and did you take cues from the other tracks?
YA: One of the approaches I often take to composition is to work with short fragments of melody and rhythm. Once I’ve arrived upon motifs that resonate with me, I mess around with these ‘cells’, adding notes, inverting patterns and improvising on the themes. It’s like being a child, discovering new things by experimenting through play. It occurred to me that I could use the same process with It, using fragments of the material to create a collage, something personal to me, from Chick’s miniature masterpiece.
Whilst working on this arrangement, I was listening to quite a bit of Turkish music and also Standards by American post-rock band, Tortoise, which undoubtedly inspired me to go for heavy sounding guitars, played by Samuel Hällkvist, and crunchy, virtuosic drum grooves performed by Martin France. I always like to compose with particular musicians in mind and for this project it felt perfect to invite my friend, and Chick’s long-time collaborator, Tim Garland, to join my musical family on bass clarinet.
Creating this track has been such a fun experience and I hope people enjoy my proggy-jazzy Turkish take on Chick Corea’s It.
Conor Albert “You Make Me Feel So Good”– From Bobbi Humphrey Fancy Dancer (1975).
RR: Did you know about Bobbi Humphrey? And why this track? The album was not well received by jazz critics at the time – how do you think this stands up now?
CA: No, I actually didn’t know about Bobbi Humphrey. Rachel from Decca actually suggested I had a listen to this album and I thought a lot of it was really cool! There’s this other tune called Please Set Me at Ease that I also really enjoyed. It reminded me a lot of Headhunters era Herbie Hancock, which I’m a massive fan of. It’s interesting that it wasn’t received well. I seem to remember a lot of jazz critics didn’t like the new jazz funk fusion stuff that happened in the 70’s, as they thought it was too mainstream and thought artists were selling out. I don’t know much about Bobbi’s history but maybe it was something to do with that? I think it stands up great now. It sounds SO 1970’s, in a great way. Super nostalgic and all the sounds are so idiomatic of the time. I just really loved the harmony throughout the record, some pretty weird choices at times but super fun to play!
Parthenope “Don’t Know Why”– From Norah Jones Come Away with Me (2002).
RR: How challenging was it to tackle one of the most familiar songs on the album and how did you go about making it “yours”.
P: I spent a lot of time figuring out which song would work best for me to recreate. I love making music that feels nostalgic and dreamy and felt ‘Don’t Know Why’ naturally lends itself to that. It’s just a great song – I’ve known it since I was a kid and was so inspired to work on it.
When beginning my arrangement, I started to hear ways I could subtly play around with parts of the track in order to offset the original but keep the essence and beauty in its simplicity. What I ended up with was a cover of ‘Don’t Know Why’ that grows from being heavily influenced by the original into something completely different throughout the song, with chord reharmonisation, huge backing vocal stacks and improvisation until it takes you somewhere else as a listener. There is a satisfaction when the song returns to back to the familiar last Norah verse and then brought to a close by a dreamy and thoughtful outro.
I really wanted to maintain everything I love about ‘Don’t Know Why’ in my version. Though it was daunting at first to take on such a big song, I’m so glad I worked with the challenge as it really pushed me creatively and I think it came out great in the end.
Swindle “Miss Kane” – From Donald Byrd Street Lady (1973),
Producer Swindle was unavailable, but both versions are great jazz-funk tracks. The original dates from when Byrd was working with the Mizzell brothers.
Nubiyan Twist “Through the Noise (Chant No.2)” – From Donald Byrd A New Perspective (1963)
RR: This is one of the most dramatic reworking from a dramatic album. Can you tell me how Chant became Chant No 2. especially about the new rhythm track.
NT: We were excited by the unusual marriage of heavy swing found in both Jazz and UK Garage and 2 step. A connection we hadn’t consciously made before but one that became an exciting backdrop for influences of broken beat, afrobeat, bebop, synthesis and sampling culture that found their way into the composition. We liked the idea of taking a track that might not be an obvious choice and Nick Richards found himself writing lyrics for Donald Byrd’s ‘Chant’ and sketching a beat on his analogue drum machines, Tom Excell then developed new sections in his Sheffield studio, followed by Luke Wynter writing reharmonized chords for a C section. It continued in this fashion as a remote, chain-reaction writing process (begrudgingly adopted due to covid restrictions) which was all compiled and produced by Tom along the way. We got together at Nave studios in Leeds where last minute additions to the composition were made, such as Pilo’s Brazilian-Portuguese rap and BV’s from Ria Moran before finally recording the tune together and getting to hear live band sound. It was a whirlwind process as Tom was due to have his first child around the time of making this tune. Given the grandeur of the artists on Blue Note we put a lot of pressure on ourselves however there’s always something nice about committing to initial ideas and not overthinking or intellectualizing music. It becomes an encapsulation of that moment, even if you feel it’s not finished yet, it’s an honest snapshot. Having a new life about to enter the world whilst composing this conjured up a lot of thoughts about letting go of your ego and passing on the torch to the next generation, reimagining what’s come before in a way that honours and preserves the best parts of the past. It was an honour to have this opportunity to rework ‘Chant’ by Donald Byrd and we’d like to dedicate it to baby Zebedee and his mother Kathy.
Like a lot of the material that we compose as a band, Chant 2 was written collaboratively. We had already become quite used to sending tracks back and forth to one another over the years and this was certainly true over the pandemic.
When we were invited by Blue Note to contribute to the project, we all thought about the tunes we felt most inspired by and started to demo some ideas. I think we explored some Art Blakey material originally as we thought the horn heavy arrangements would work well in our ensemble. At around the same time I started to demo an arrangement of ‘Chant’ by Donald Byrd. I wanted to avoid selecting a tune that I already knew very well and especially stayed clear of my favourite tracks. Chant was a tune that I had heard before, but it was fresh enough in my ears to begin ‘reimagine’ it as a contemporary composition. First and foremost, when I sat and listened to the track, I instantly felt inspired. It was the honesty of human voice and the melancholic mood of the tune. It was haunting! Reflecting on it now, I think it really resonated with the times and what everyone was and is going through.
Musically, the original has a very strong melody, so it made sense to try and write lyrics. In the process of the lyric writing, I tried to explore the whole experience of feeling as though these jazz greats were communicating to us through the music, what were they trying to say? The 2 step, Garage feel to the track wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision, but I think it’s a sound that is so unique to the UK! I don’t think that any of us really wanted to explore a classic jazz swing feel to the track as that would have been too in keeping with the original and could have sounded like a bit of a pastiche. That being said, it is funny how we ended up having a shuffle and swing to the beat through the Garage feel. There is a strange parallel!
Once we had established the main feel of the track, we started to share ideas for B sections, a bridge and some horn figures also. Tom Excell is our band leader and producer. It really is inspiring watching him bring together everyone’s ideas to create a cohesive arrangement. By the time it came to record our parts as a band, we already had a good idea of what the form would be. Tom facilitated a session at the incredible Nave studios in Leeds, the city where the band had been conceived. This was one of the first times we had all been together since the pandemic, so it was really special. During this session Oli (keys), contributed a beautiful piano solo and Pilo (percussion, vocals), a passage of Brazilian-Portuguese spoken word, which really dances around the whole rhythmic feel of the track. Ria Moran has been featuring with the band over the last couple of years, so it was important to have her presence on the track. She contributed some beautiful backing vocals and ad libs. Once the tune had been recorded, we had our good friend and mixing engineer Oli Barton-Wood pull everything together.
I think we jammed a lot into this tune, which is pretty typical for the way we write and arrange as a band. There is a lot of us and it’s important that everyone features in a meaningful way. Although we were paying homage to Donald Byrd’s original tune, I think we were able to take it to another space, using our own influences and musical culture, which is the whole point of the genre. It’s about pushing forward, innovating and seeking ways to express ourselves in the most honest way possible.
Ego Ella May “The Morning Side of Love” – From Chico Hamilton Pereginations (1975).
Ego Ella May was not available for interview, which was a shame as it would be interesting to hear a vocalist’s take on a percussionist’s album..
Oscar Jerome & Oscar #Worldpeace “(Why You So) Green with Envy” – From Grant Green, Green Street (1961).
Oscar Jerome was not available for intereview.
Daniel Casimir ft. Ria Moran “Lost” – From Wayne Shorter The Soothsayer (1979)
RR: The Soothsayer is a very good album that languished in the vault for years. Can you talk about the appeal of this band (and maybe a word about Ron Carter in particular)? And why/how you went for this quite significant (and successful) reconstruction of this track.
DC: The reimagining of Wayne Shorter’s lost album was quite difficult (it took me around 11 attempts) simply because I have such a great affection for the track and the album as a whole. My goal wasn’t to modernise the music (which I feel is impossible), but to imagine what the track could potentially sound like if Wayne Shorter was born in West London. I am truly grateful to collaborate with vocalist and writer Ria Moran, Who I feel really captures the mood of the original piece in this setting. Another difficulty about covering this track is that each personnel on the original recording is an icon in Jazz . I had the pleasure of watching Ron Carter at this year’s North Sea Jazz, and it is truly an honour to cover piece that he has performed on.
Theon Cross “Epistrophy”– From Thelonious Monk Genius of Modern Music (1952).
The innovative tuba player as unavailable for interview.
Maya Delilah “Harvest Moon” – From Cassandra Wilson New Moon Daughter (1995)
RR: Many of your listed inspirations come from outside pure “jazz” as, of course Neil Young is (until Cassandra got hold of him). Did you know or like the track (either version) before? How did you approach putting your own spin on it?
MD: I’ve known and loved ‘Harvest Moon’ for a long time as every year me and my family sing it at Christmas (weirdly so as it’s not a Christmas song) but because of that it’s always been a nostalgic song for me. I’m a fan of both versions of the song but wanted to take attributes from Cassandra’s version and start the song off in a similar style to her slow mesmerising cover. I always love making funky sections and love an unexpected switch up so decided to take the second half in that direction.”
Kay Young “Feel Like Making Love” – From Marlena Shaw Mama Got a Bag of Her Own (2006).
RR: In the past you have quoted Janis Joplin as an inspiration. Marlena Shaw is altogether smoother prospect – can you describe what you get from her?
KY: They are actually quite similar in styles. You’ll hear the similarity more on Marlena Shaw’s ‘Women of the Ghetto’ which is quite electrifying. What I love about Marlena Shaw and why I was drawn to her …is her ability to switch that energy on and off.
Venna & Marco Bernardis “Where Are We Going” – From Donald Byrd Blackbyrd (1973).
Venna & Marco were unavailable for interview.
Reuben James “Infant Eyes” – From Wayne Shorter Speak No Evil (1966).
RR Why this track? With added lyrics?
RJ: I found a few vocal versions online with lyrics, I think it’s Jean Carne [It is-RR]. That really inspired me to do my own take and version on this classic and really put it into a more modern soundscape. Herbie Hancock is the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) for me with his feel and choices, second to none really what his sound brings to the original on that [Wayne Shorter record], it’s just ridiculous. I think Herbie’s every piano player’s favourite piano player basically. I actually got to meet him recently, he’s very humble, super sweet and encouraging. I hope you guys enjoy my rendition. It’s really appropriate cause my sister had just had a baby and I’m soon to have my first and it just felt like a right moment to do this song, big up to Wayne Shorter for the composition as it’s just unbelievable harmony. It’s so lush, the chord choices are so ahead of its time and it’s still so hip even today, it just wows me every time.
Binker Golding “Fort Worth” – From Joe Lovano From The Soul (1992).
RR: Perhaps because of the American title I can hear a link from the original to your style on some tracks on your new album, Dream Like a Dogwood Wild Boy. The reworking sounds to me like it straddles that and Feeding the Machine. Can you tell me what your aims were on taking this track on? And why Lovano?
BM: Why Lovano? To me, he is one of the most inspiring saxophonists working today & the record “From the Soul” & particularly the track “Fort Worth” from the early 90’s have always been inspiring to me. It’s a beautifully written, played and recorded number. It’s incredibly simple, but at the same time successful in telling a story that really works. Lovano’s playing and writing are superb in general. So, it was never a difficult choice in that sense. Just difficult to live up to.
“Fort Worth” does have a fairly American feel to it & of course the title does help. I wanted to pick a track which tied into where I am now musically. There are no chordal instruments on the original & this was the big difference I made with the cover. We also played in a more aggressive fashion which changed the mood of the track somewhat. I simply felt that the dissonant, distorted guitar sound would add a fitting new dimension to the song. Binker & Moses’ “Feeding the machine” is certainly a more aggressive album than “Dream like a Dogwood Wild Boy” and it’s possible I still had one ear in that world [of B&M] when making this arrangement.
Cherise “Sunrise” – From Norah Jones Feels Like Home (2004).
A very interesting choice – not an album that was well received at the time, thanks mainly to the increased “country” element. Cherise has moved it back towards a jazzier feel. She was not available for interview.
Franc Moody “Cristo Redentor”– From Donald Byrd A New Perspective (1963).
RR: This album was Byrd’s attempt to address religion/spirituality in a new way. Does that resonate with you? Or was there another attraction?
FM: Donald Byrd’s, Cristo Redentor is an undeniably transformative piece of music. It has that very special quality of being able to stop your brain whirling in its tracks, cut out the background noise and take you on a journey. Those choral voices are so confident and beautiful but have a vulnerability to them. Byrd references music we’re more used to hearing in a place of worship and yet delivers it within the cool tones and the aesthetic of Blue Note jazz.
Like Donald Byrd (in our own slightly ham-fisted way), we strive for our music to take listeners to a different place. Whether through the mediative grooves of dance music, the scene setting of lyrical hooks, or (without looking into it too much) just trying to offer up a good time on a dance floor somewhere. There’s probably some sort of connection with Donald Byrd’s influences and ours. Growing up surrounded by the choral music of Herbert Howells and John Tavener, the first time I heard Cristo Redentor I was blown away and so inspired by how he had integrated these sounds, space and depth into his music. To be honest we were very scared we would butcher this glorious piece. It’s a very dangerous thing re-imagining a masterpiece!! But we hope that one or two people can get lost in our take on it for a few precious minutes.
- Blue Note Re:imagined II is released on September 30th, but you can preview the tunes and compare them to the originals by clicking on the playlist at https://www.bluenote.com/announcing-blue-note-reimagined-ii/. IF the vinyl arrives in time (never a given), Rob Ryan will be doing some back-to-back comparisons of new and old Blue Note at Camden New Journal’s talkin’/jazz stage at the York Rise Street Party NW5 on September 11th. There will also be a tickets to shows at the Pizza Express (https://www.pizzaexpresslive.com/), the Hampstead Jazz Club (https://hampsteadjazzclub.com/) and Camden’s Jazz Café (https://thejazzcafelondon.com) up for grabs.