I had the misfortune a few weeks ago to see a bit of a terrible BBC TV show called Over the Rainbow, the main aim of which seems to be to use TV License payers’ money to provide free advertising for a forthcoming West End production of the Wizard of Oz. Anyway, when I was thinking yesterday about cover versions of tunes that turned out better than the original, the tune Over the Rainbow sprang to mind. Since I’ve been on holiday today – studiously avoiding doing very much at all – I thought I’d put up some interesting jazz versions of that particular song.
There are hardly any tunes ever written that some jazz musician somewhere hasn’t taken a fancy to and done their own original version, however unpromising the raw material. Louis Armstrong had a particularly amazing ability to turn base metal into solid gold, making glorious music out of tunes nobody else wanted to touch. I’ve picked three quite different versions of Over the Rainbow, all of which I think are brilliant despite the mawkish sentimentality of the original song.
The first is from a concert by Keith Jarrett in Tokyo in 1984. As well as being a brilliant jazz musician, Jarrett is an accomplished classical performer who, for example, made an exceptionally fine recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations a few years ago. Quite a few people seem to get put off by watching his antics at the keyboard. I can see why. I think he sometimes looks like the piano is playing him, rather than the other way around. But if his contortions bother you, just listen to the music, which is just gorgeous…
When I was still at school back in 1980 or 81 I had the good fortune to get to see the great alto saxophonist Art Pepper playing live with a band led by pianist Milcho Leviev. He played so beautifully on that concert that I became an immediate fan and tried to get hold of as many of his records as I could. I was devastated to hear just a couple of years later that he had died. Like many jazz musicians of his generation, Art Pepper had a serious drugs problem and he spent long periods in jail as a consequence. He joked that San Quentin Prison had better musicians than any establishment on Earth.
His tender, lyrical sound and graceful improvisations are beautifully represented on this track recorded with George Cables (piano) and – I think - Charlie Haden (bass) and Billy Higgins on drums.
The last one up is by the great Bud Powell. He was another musician who struggled with narcotics, but he also had serious mental illness to deal with – he suffered numerous breakdowns and was heavily medicated in an attempt treat his schizophrenia. Although he moved to Paris in 1959 to make a fresh start, his self-destructive tendencies caught up with him. The quality of his playing deteriorated, his behaviour became erratic and he eventually died in 1966. Before leaving the States, however, Powell had made a number of recordings in which he demostrated the virtuousity and musical imagination that established him as one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time, and certainly the leading stylist of the bebop era.
Bud Powell’s version of Over the Rainbow is one of my all-time favourite pieces of music. He puts so much variation into the way he plays it, alternating a lush romantic style with jagged boppy lines and dark undertones introducing a strong element of parody juxtaposed with a more orthodox treatment of the melody. As much as I love the other two versions, this is my a favourite. By any standards, it is a masterpiece.