Whatever the reason, the result was a new innovation in improvised jazz, which provided a new artistic challenge, and gave jazz as a music style entré into the pop culture world as more than just dance music. This ultimately set it on its path of becoming the stylistic omnivore it has been since the 1950s.
The main elements to Armstrong’s innovation were individuality and deconstruction. Cover a tune people know well, especially the melody, but put your own spin and personality quirks in the way you play it. Change the phrasing, rhythm, and articulation (a little later players tinker with the harmony, meter and even form of pop tunes) so the melody now becomes YOUR melody. Pick apart the original version and recast the song in a different instrumental setting, alter the mood of the piece to reflect your personal relationship to the narrative. Listen to “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”, the 1929 version by Armstrong and focus on how he deconstructs the word ‘baby’ (it is a pop tune after all and that word is central to pop songs of any era) to see what I mean. Compared to a 1920s pop version, by Annette Hanshaw for example, Louis completely rewrites the song in his own language.
The best jazz covers have followed those rules for decades, Miles’ version of “Someday My Prince Will Come” for example
(have you heard the original from Disney’s Snow White by Adriana Caselotti lately? It’s a testament to his brilliance that Miles could transform that song into the jazz standard that it is today). Or Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things” (perhaps the most notorious pop cover in all of jazz), which deconstructs the original so deftly thus transforming it into the modal jazz anthem we all know it as today. What connects all these examples together is the artist’s ability to find and re-imagine a strong pop melody. Hitching one’s creative or improvisational exploits to a melody that speaks to audiences in both concrete and abstract ways is what makes jazz covers part of the vox populi (or cantus populi, song of the people).
Here is where the 1980s come in. A modern day jazz deconstructionist can survey decades of pop culture repertoire but if they go much past the 60s or 70s they get into territory that most contemporary audiences can’t connect with. Alternately, if they use repertoire from the late 90s or from the 2000s to now they run into conceptual and aesthetic issues because so much of the music has been almost systematically stripped of harmonic movement or melodic arc. (There are always exceptions to my blunt assessment – Radiohead from the early 2000s for example or Adele from today. In general, however, if you graphed the melodic arc of the typical top ten billboard song it would almost be a flat line.)
Where does the jazz artist turn for both melodic inspiration and audience relevance? The 1980s! That decade had an eclectic sound to say the least. What other recent decade can boast a chart topping list of names with such variation in style and content as Prince, Cindy Lauper, Michael Jackson, Tears for Fears, and Peter Gabriel to name a few. One thing these artists, as well as many others, did have in common was a penchant for strong melodies and catchy riffs or vamps. Not only are the 1980s a goldmine of interesting and lasting melodies waiting to be re-interpreted, but also additionally those songs are just now peaking as America’s most relevant ‘nostalgia soundtrack’. As the boomer generation ages towards retirement, the following generation (the so-called generation X) is poised to be the next American generation to indulge in gluttony of the nostalgia buffet. It is already happening, so much of today’s fashion is 80s updates and in other music styles the 80s has already taken hold, from 80s nights at clubs to reunion tours, to innovative 80s cover bands in other genres of music (my favorite being Love Cannon, a bluegrass outfit from Charlottesville VA,
not to mention Boston’s own Ronald Reagan, an outstanding saxophone duo).
The great thing about the 80s is that the music culture was well documented in movie soundtracks, and perhaps most importantly, iconic music videos. Not only do the former high school or junior high kids of the 80s (now in their 40s and 30s) love to revisit the culture of the era, but even kids born in the 80s and 90s know the songs and movies. In so many ways, music of the 1980s is speaking to a broader cross section of the American audience than today’s current chart toppers. It may currently be the most emotionally relevant pop culture out there in America.
I think because of the aesthetic potential and the pop culture relevance, 1980s repertoire for jazz musicians is a fertile and creative addition to the current ‘bag of tricks’ any post-modern improviser already possesses.
There already have been several artists who have explored this repertoire. Like in the past, the best covers are the ones that hold true to Armstrong’s advice; find a catchy melody, and make it your own with personal interpretation and deconstruction. Herbie Hancock was one of the first to test the waters with his 1996 recording ‘The New Standard’ (although I should mention Miles’ cover of Lauper’s “Time After Time” recorded in 1985 probably is the first official 80s jazz cover). Hancock gives all types of tunes from the 60s-90s a jazz treatment. One of the more interesting is a cover of Peter Gabriel’s “Mercy Street” originally from 1986’s So. Herbie takes a cue from Coltrane here with a modal vamp primed for Hancock’s polytonal harmonic shadings mixed with world music influences (Gabriel was also a fan of cross-pollinating his pop with international flare) including the use of tabla. Like with the pop covers of old the main goal is to be a vehicle for improvisation, which Herbie certainly highlights in his version by leaving ample room for solos.
The Bad Plus is another group that has delved into the pop tune world of the 70s, 80s and 90s and they have had international success with their sometimes severely deconstructed versions of favorite melodies. The Bad Plus are children of the 80s, so it should be no surprise they find joy in reinterpreting songs like Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”.
They take the cold and objective new wave classic and infuse it with their very impassioned postmodern mix of free jazz, bebop and rock elements (Bad Plus Verison – Heart of Glass). Flexible tempo, chromatic or polytonal areas and collective improvisation are all hallmarks of their high-energy version, yet all the while one is never at a loss to hear and comprehend the original melody even though the mood and context are so dramatically new.
Personally, I have three entries from my recorded oeuvre that qualify as 80s pop deconstructions. I was between the ages of 6 and 16 in that decade, very impressionable years in terms of cultural comprehension therefore the music of the decade is deeply ingrained in my psI am also a firm adherer to Armstrong’s lessons, and like my contemporaries the Bad Plus, my goal is to always make the music my own and never compromise my style or sound just because it is a pop tune. I recorded A-ha’s “Take On Me” on my first solo recording American Vanity in 2003.
“Take On Me” is one of my favorite songs (and videos) of the decade and, no surprise, it has a captivating melody. The chorus has a two-and-a-half octave melody, a great challenge to arrange for a solo instrument (let alone sing!). I chose to cover Van Halen’s “Hot For Teacher” on my 2010 American Fear album for several reasons as I explained in the liner notes.
“…It captures some of my youth, and I’m poking fun at myself because I am also a Jazz educator, and it shreds! Eddie Van Halen is a busy busy guitar player…in jazz terms shredding is akin to bebop. So I fused them. I thought the combination of a fast rock tune based on the blues plus the harmonic ambiguity of an added bebop layer was interesting” (from the liner notes of American Fear). Lastly I recorded “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, also from American Fear. It’s message of power struggle and greed is still so relevant in today’s society. Perhaps more compelling, at least from a solo guitar standpoint, was the repetitive syncopated riff and melody in the verses that are modal in nature (think the “So What” riff from Miles but on synthesizer). Not to mention the dramatic chorus melody which is just begging to be deconstructed with more syncopation and polyrhythm. I wonder how Louis would have played it.
Bonus – just for fun compare and contrast versions of Tears for Fears “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by the Bad Plus and myself.