WORTH A LISTEN
I was pretty excited when I picked up The New Standard. I mean, talk about a dream team: Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, John Scofield, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, and Don Alias. It doesn’t get any better than that.
The challenge in a date like The New Standard comes in taking a batch of modern pop tunes and making them work as post bop. First of all, you’ve got to pick tunes that are sturdy enough for jazz improvisation. Second of all, you’ve got to find ways to translate pop tunes into the jazz idiom. The band has mixed success in both areas.
Before I sat down to review The New Standard, I hadn’t heard many of these tunes, so I checked out the tiny samples that are available at Amazon.com.
From what I can tell, Don Henley’s New York Minute is a lugubrious, synth infused slog. Hancock and the band take the tempo way up, finding ways to emphasize the dissonance implicit in the composition. The band emphasizes jagged rhythms during the verses, breaking into swing time on the chorus. The band’s sound is as terrific as you would expect. Of course, the rhythm team of Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette and Don Alias is unbeatable. Their grooves kill. Herbie Hancock sparkles on piano in a way that he hasn’t since the 70s. Scofield, too is red hot. It’s great to see him in a post bop mode, concentrating on the notes instead of on tone and effects. Brecker is predictably fine on tenor. The band’s rendition of New York Minute shows that the basic concept of The New Standard could work.
Prince’s Thieves In The Temple is also successful. Hancock has simplified Prince’s original into an R&B groove tune, which works beautifully for the group. It’s the equivalent of someone like Jimmy Smith covering a Marvin Gaye tune back in the 70s.
Regrettably, these are the only unqualified successes. Let’s face it — Kurt Cobain’s All Apologies is a weak tune, redeemed mostly by Kurt’s performance, and given additional emotional heft by the circumstances under which it came out. Hancock’s arrangement doesn’t help matters. Scofield’s guitar sounds whiny. The whole thing sounds sing-songy, which is kind of hard to avoid because All Apologies is a sing-songy composition, not one of Kurt’s best.
Several of the tunes end up sounding like smooth jazz, which is hard to avoid, considering how bland the originals are.
I question the wisdom of including tunes like Sade’s Love Is Stronger Than Pride, Babyface’s When Can I See You, or even Stevie Wonder’s You’ve Got It Bad, Girl.
I just came from a Realistic Orchestra concert in which they covered Stevie Wonder’s Visions and Contusion, both much better choices for jazz covers. It’s almost like Herbie Hancock deliberately chose songs that were resistant to being covered in a jazz context, as if the performing capabilities of the musicians were infinitely more important than the compositions themselves.
If that was Hancock’s intent, I think it was misguided. Certainly, the band Herbie got together for this date is killer, and even the lamest of these songs has moments when the playing of the musicians overcomes the limitations of the material, but as a whole, The New Standard falls short of it’s potential.