Loving covers of popular music is a grand jazz tradition. From blues vamps to show tunes to popular song of the day, jazz musicians have explored the harmonic opportunities found in pop music. Results, as you might expect, have varied. Miles Davis’ version of “Someday My Prince Will Come” became a jazz standard. On the other hand, did the world really need a jazzified take on “Wonderwall” by Oasis? Yeesh.
A slight inversion of this phenomenon is the cover of a jazz tune in the pop realm: think Willie Nelson’s rendition of Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” from his classic Stardust album.
Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” has seen many versions in both the jazz and pop realms. Jeff Beck has always done a great job with it, as has Joni Mitchell. And then there’s Anthony Braxton, who takes the song down into some deep, dark corners. For more than thee minutes, Braxton and bassist Niels Pedersen take a long, slow skulk through the underworld of extended technique. After that they switch into unison play with Pedersen bowing the bass and Braxton shaking the world with his contrabass clarinet. It’s a presentation that’s a long way from Beck’s bluesy modernism, and perhaps not even on the same planet as Joni’s breezy swing.
It’s hard to tell what Braxton was thinking when he performed this. If you listen to a few of the man’s interviews, it becomes evident that there might be too many brains jammed between that guy’s ears. Not that I’m complaining, because this stuff is seriously thought-provoking.