Not Against Interpretation


Beginning with Miles Davis, numerous jazz musicians have recognized Jimi Hendrix as a fellow sonic explorer—but one with a mass following beyond their wildest dreams. He reversed the standard crossover, gaining a smidgen of black acceptance with Band of Gypsys in 1969, two years after wowing the hippies at Monterey. Is it surprising that black avant-gardists saddened by the relative scarcity of brothers and sisters in their audience identify with him? A simpler explanation might be that a generation of improvisers now approaching 50 grew up hearing transcendence in Hendrix and Coltrane interchangeably. David Murray, for example. “Deep down inside he was also a jazz musician,” Murray says of Hendrix in the liner notes to the World Saxophone Quartet’s Experience. I appreciate that “also”; oblivious to their implied condescension, those who make a case for Hendrix as a misplaced blues player or jazz musician usually come off sounding like they’re awarding a pop star a complimentary upgrade.

Though nearly every younger jazz guitarist worth hearing has copied as much from Hendrix as from Wes Montgomery, Hendrix’s tunes—little more than riffs and vamps, except for a handful of finely crafted ballads like “Little Wing” and “The Wind Cries Mary”—have stubbornly resisted jazz interpretation, even by so sympathetic an arranger as Gil Evans and so free a soloist as Robert Dick. With drummer Gene Lake, bassist Matthew Garrison, trombonist Craig Harris, and violinist Billy Bang as spot starters, WSQ subverts Hendrix to suit its own needs.

The most ear-catching performance on Experience is the one that strays furthest: Murray’s almost unrecognizable transformation of “Hey Joe” into a dirge, driven home by his preacherly tenor exhortations atop a choir of saxophones voiced so spaciously you hear a phantom organ or accordion. Oliver Lake has more to work with on “Little Wing,” and his treatment catches the shimmer of Hendrix’s original all the way through a string of sax solos initiated by Lake’s throaty alto over son Gene’s crushing sock cymbal (Bruce Williams, though generally no match for his predecessors Julius Hemphill and Arthur Blythe, makes a strong showing here on curved soprano.) The CD’s third knockout is Harris’s feverish arrangement of “Hear My Train A-Comin’,” which opens with his didgeridoo, Murray’s bass clarinet, and Hamiet Bluiett’s baritone circular breathing in the tar pit.

About 15 years ago, Herb Robertson released a terrific album of Bud Powell tunes reconfigured for a brass ensemble; it revealed Powell to be an underappreciated composer by removing his dazzling pianistics from the equation. Experience does nothing like that for its honoree—it doesn’t lead us into hearing Hendrix’s own recordings any differently, nor does it try to. High-octane horn solos and pinwheeling ensembles compensate for the loss of guitar, but you might find yourself missing Hendrix’s shy mumble, for which Harris’s recitation of the lyrics to “The Wind Cries Mary” and the entire group grunting the title phrase at the appropriate moments on “Foxy Lady” are no real substitute. But not even riffy things like “Freedom” and “If 6 Was 9” tempt WSQ into the kind of polite freaking out and chordless noodling that often ensues when jazz musicians rock. This is their most satisfying album since their classic LPs of the ’80s with Hemphill, and the challenge of translating foreign material into jazz probably has a lot to do with it.

Which brings us to Somewhere, pianist Bill Charlap’s album of songs by Leonard Bernstein, a composer whose mixed feelings about improvisation (he wrote “Big Stuff” for Billie Holiday, then prevented the release of a take on which she added a few embellishments) present obstacles of a different sort. Notwithstanding Bill Evans’s version of “Some Other Time,” the many cash-in albums of songs from West Side Story, a delirious “Somewhere” by Bill Dixon and Archie Shepp in 1962, and entire albums by Marian McPartland and Tommy Flanagan from the same era, Bernstein is practically virgin territory for jazz. It’s easy to hear why. Songs like “Somewhere” and “Glitter and Be Gay” call for a harmonic sophistication that has nothing to do with chord changes; they reveal their charms more readily to an orchestrator than to an improviser—something Charlap takes into account, using the bass and drums of the unrelated Peter and Kenny Washington for coloration as well as momentum.

Charlap, who inherited the Washingtons from Flanagan along with his lyrical touch, approaches the title track and a few others too reverently, and he gives “Lucky to Be Me” more bounce—and more blues—than it needs (a sin he also committed against Richard Rodgers’s “Nobody’s Heart” at the Village Vanguard earlier this month). Why Charlap chooses to do this is a mystery, because the blues isn’t his forte. But he redeems himself with a pregnant “Lonely Town” and an insinuating “Big Stuff” phrased as if he were hearing Billie whispering in his mind’s ear. And on three dance numbers from West Side Story—”Cool,” “America,” and “Jump”—he successfully transfigures Bernstein’s faux jazz into the genuine article. Owing greatly to the material, Somewhere is one of those rare piano trio albums that doesn’t leave you wishing for a horn or two. To an even greater degree than Experience (the better album, but clearly a one-off), it replenishes the jazz repertoire while making a convincing argument for the neglected art of interpretation. For all the noise we jazz types make about originality, nothing beats hearing a song we know from someplace else done in a new way—familiarity and surprise thrown together in one attractive package.