Drop by your local jazz club and on an average night there’s a fair chance the band will at some point play a rendition of “Autumn Leaves,” “My Favorite Things” or ” ‘Round Midnight” — or maybe all three. You might hear an inspired rendition of a time-honored classic, but more likely you’ll have to sit through a sub-standard jazz-by-numbers cover.
These tunes (and hundreds more) are jazz standards, or what is commonly referred to as “The Great American Songbook.” They’re the bedrock on which the modern jazz repertoire has been built, and most aspiring musicians have learned them. Due to the changeable nature of band lineups and with many musicians hustling for gigs, knowledge of the standards makes it easier to sit in on a session, meaning they perpetually feature in live sets.
You won’t just hear these songs on the stage, though, jazz artists love to record the standards again and again, especially in Japan. The last few months have seen three new versions of “Fly Me to the Moon” by Japanese artists (Aki Yashiro, Chihiro Yamanaka, and The Jazz Lady).
It’s fair to say that these new recordings aren’t likely to become essential versions of the classic, so why is there a continued fixation on compositions that have been recorded hundreds of times before?
On the one hand you have vocalists who have made their name in pop or enka (Japanese ballads) who decide to “do a jazz album,” which basically means a cover album of standards. On the other hand you have major labels playing it safe by releasing albums from established jazz musicians that predominantly feature standards with the hope that the familiarity of the tunes will help generate sales in a rapidly shrinking market.
Undoubtedly, the standards are vitally important in the history of jazz. A large proportion of these songs are not only great tunes, but also represent some of the most celebrated jazz recordings ever. However, there’s no escaping the fact that the basic jazz repertoire has remained essentially unchanged for about half a century, with some of the standards originally written and recorded as much as 80 years ago.
There’s a risk that if artists and record labels fail to look beyond this body of music, jazz as an art form will be reduced to little more than a museum piece, something that Scott Timberg referred to in a recent article for Salon.com titled “Did The American Songbook kill jazz?”
The good news, however, is that there is a significant number of acts out there trying to do something new and innovative. They are writing original material or, rather than going back to the standards, they’re referring to more contemporary songs for their covers.
In recent years, the music of Radiohead, Lady Gaga and Nirvana has been a source of inspiration for jazz acts worldwide. American artists such as Robert Glasper, Brad Mehldau and The Bad Plus, as well as Japan’s Jabberloop and Yokota Hiroyuki Ethnic Minority have recorded very different versions of grunge anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
German band [re:jazz] found international success with acoustic jazz arrangements of electronic tracks, something Nagoya club jazz act Version City Session have also tried.
Lady Gaga hits have been rearranged and recorded by trumpeter Shinpei Ruike and composer/arranger Miho Hazama, giving the tunes a whole new dimension.
This approach is very much in keeping with the spirit of the standards, many of which were originally songs from long-forgotten stage shows or films. That is, taking a catchy tune and using improvisation or a new arrangement to create something totally new. However, by choosing more recent tunes, these artists are showing how jazz can continue to be a relevant creative force in today’s music scene.