| Jazz Cloning
By Mark A. Ruffin, Jazz Editor
Who knows who came up with the idea of the Blue Note Cover Series that debuts this month with albums from guitarists Fareed Haque and Charlie Hunter and saxophonist Everette Harp, but my guess is it came from someone in the marketing department at EMI. At first I thought this was a really dumb idea, and I still have my doubts, but eventually I realized what a stroke of genius this is. I came to this conclusion when I finally realized why any artist, let alone a company, would want to remake another artist’s album.
The seeds of the Blue Note Cover series no doubt started last year when someone’s in Najee’s camp thought it wise to do Stevie Wonder’s “Song’s In The Key Of Life” album over. Even on the super lite smooth jazz road he’s on, Najee’s technique leaves something to be desired, and Wonder’s brilliant compositions exposed his lack of chops.
Also last year Miami saxophonist Turk Mauro released an album of Gene “Jug” Ammons tunes. While tribute albums to musicians and composers are pretty common in traditional jazz, this particular one made me reach for the original Jug every time.
Mauro, unlike Najee, does have chops to spare. But the latter also had the muscle of one of the biggest record companies in the world. And in the pop/jazz world, this phenomenon of artist tributes seemed to have taken another step when, critics like myself be damn, Najee’s version of “Songs In The Key Of Life” was successful. That’s where I’m sure some stature seeking exec started searching his childhood musical memories to see how they matched up with the artists his bosses are pinning their hopes on.
I had no idea this was even going to be a series when I first heard that Haque was going to redo Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Deja vu” album.
I was at the Sunday night acid jazz set at Chicago’s Elbo Room watching the hot yet unsigned local phenoms Zo. Between sets, the keyboardist, Carlos Villa-Lobos, was hyped about the album he was co-producing with Haque. I even expressed to Carlos then, “what a dumb idea.” But he guaranteed it was working beyond everyone’s wildest dream. I tried to tell him then about Patti Austin’s great cover of CSN&Y’s “Carry On.” He told me they had done it already and that their version was smoking.
While taking into consideration that some of these simple melodies have been reduced to 30 second commercial beds today, and that jazz was the furthest thing from the minds of the composers, Haque and my buddy Carlos, have failed miserably in their attempt to breathe 90’s art into them.
“Carry On” may be the biggest offender, as it limps along the riff and changes of the tune. Stephen Stills not only was the only of those four hippies with soul, he was a very angry man at the time. Haque, on the other hand is a technician who comes off cold on most of this set, and somebody should have made him mad before doing this project. I remember wondering how in the hell were they going to do “4+20”? And wouldn’t you know it, it’s one of only two things I can stomach on this record. The other, ironically, is the only cover CSN&Y did on “Deja vu”, Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.”
There’s even more irony, as it was reported that Haque was offered a choice by Blue Note to do this old hippie record, or Joni Mitchell’s “Court And Spark.” What a no-brainer. Mitchell’s songs like “Help Me” and “Free Man In Paris” are much more dynamic and suitable to today’s modern jazz rhythm, not to mention the fact that Mitchell’s only cover tune was a jazz tune, Annie Ross’ homage to the Wardell Gray line “Twisted.” As it is, his analyst may tell him never to play “Teach Your Children” in public.
Charlie Hunter’s “Natty Dread” record of Bob Marley’s tunes on the other hand, had my foot in my mouth. Quite simply this record is stunning.
No doubt, this record had some ties to an Elbo Room too. The one in San Francisco where Hunter has been working and amassing his acid jazz empire with groups like T.J. Kirk, Spearhead. The Up & Down All-Stars and his own trio and quartet.
From the opening strains of “Lively Up Yourself” to the last notes of “Revolution” this album is a comfortable as one of those old 60’s Groove Holmes or Grant Green Blue Note albums that acid jazz musicians are so fond of emulating. The former works up so much steam with Hunter’s unique B-3 organ/guitar sound that it’s very easy to hear how one of the great sax men of the past like Sonny Stitt could have done it.
Hunter’s masterstroke was not trying to make a reggae album. The tracks come off as jazz musicians working over pop changes and world rhythms.
The island feel is not missed at all when the group turns the emotional “No Woman, No Cry” into a searing ballad, or when they take “Them Belly Full” even further south of Jamaica by turning it into a Brazilian samba.. While David Crosby may be rolling over in his grave and taking a downer over what Haque has done to his song, Marley no doubt reveled in a doobie when he heard Hunter’s lilting groove on “Rebel Music(3 O’Clock Roadblock)”
Hunter had the option of re-doing Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” album. No doubt, he would have done it as an acid jazz album and retained his own voice as he did on “Natty Dread,” as opposed to both label mates who let the material guide them. In Haque’s case that was disastrous. For Everette Haep, “What’s Going On” may give him the biggest selling jazz album of the year.
It was Harp’s album that completely change my mind about the quality of the idea of a cover series. And it also made it crystal clear to me that someone from marketing came up with this idea. No doubt he’ll get the promotion he’s seeking, my buddy Carlos just e-mailed me and told me that Blue Note shipped 14,000 copies of Haque’s record. There’s no telling what they’re going to do with Harp’s record.
Unlike the other two musicians, Harp had dozens of examples of jazz artists who’ve covered songs on Marvin Gaye’s epic to listen to. The songs are so adaptable to human expression, so meaningful to the world of today and therefore very user-friendly to jazz musicians. And just the list of folks who’ve done “What’s Going On..” “Inner City Blues” and “Mercy, Mercy Me(The Ecology) should have made Harp comfortable in the knowledge that his big Texas tenor could be heard through the material.
Wrong, lip-sync face.
Harp is quoted as saying that he wasn’t familiar with this album. After a very swift musical development in Houston and then as protege for the great George Duke, I really find that hard to believe, as this album is repeatedly in the top three of every important all-time list ever gathered. While that sounds like more record company fodder for hype, I’ve come up with a theory that gives Harp the benefit of the doubt.
If indeed he wasn’t familiar with “What’s Going On,” he was simply overwhelmed when he took the album home to study it. Think about it. Many of you can probably remember the first time you heard it. I can. The words mean more today than yesterday. The production quality changed how the great Motown Records did their recordings, what was he going to do. And then there’s the very believable fact that Gaye says this was not his work but the work of God. Harp was possibly awed into thinking how to hear Everette Harp into all of that.. So he copped out and duplicated Marvin Gaye’s voice.
The originality factor in this album is at an all time zero. Save for “Wholly Holy” which is given a unique treatment by gospel singer Yolanda Adams, every arrangement, every lick, and as oxymoronic as it may sound, every adlib is based on what Marvin Gaye did nearly 30 years ago. Surprisingly, of the very few original solos on the album, maybe the best is delivered on “Right On” by Najee. On his Stevie Wonder cloned album, his best tune, “Knocks Me Off My Feet” is performed on flute, and here, he sounds wonderful on it also.
There’s the party at the beginning of “What’s Going On,” with scripted lines. There’s Arsenio Hall and Dawn Lewis asking the questions on “Save The Children” and you’d swear it was Marvin on sax. And that’s the point, this huge production duplicated Marvin’s use of strings, percussion, sequencing and segueing. By the time Harp does improvise at the end of the fourth tune, you think he’s made a mistake.
Au contraire. Forget the sheep, Blue Note and Everette Harp has successfully cloned a masterpiece. It’s not perfect, but the boys in r&d or marketing sure have hit on a novelty. This will be a big hit. And I’m sure the folks at Motown are watching too, for much like that Turk Mauro/Gene Ammons record, when you take this off, you’ll be hearing Marvin Gaye in your head. Let me save you the money. Go to the cd store and, if you haven’t already, replace you vinyl copy of Marvin and leave Everette Harp in the bin.