Blue notes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 April, 2011, 12:00am


Bob Dylan fans who attended his two performances in Hong Kong last week clearly enjoyed what was, by a notoriously perverse artist's standards, a pretty straightforward set featuring a lot of old favourites.

Dylan's more recent releases have underlined his debt to the blues, and he played several tunes from the 1960s album on which that connection is most apparent, Highway 61 Revisited.

Although you won't find a lot of jazz chords on Dylan records, his exposure to jazz on the radio as a teenager and in New York's Greenwich Village in the early 1960s had a formative effect on him, as is obvious from Chronicles, the first volume of his autobiography.

In the book, Dylan specifically compares the jazz community's anger at his fellow Columbia recording artist Miles Davis for playing rock on Bitches Brew to the folk audience's response to Dylan going electric. It's possible to wonder also whether Dylan's latter-day stage persona - that of a grumpy individual only involved in the music and paying scant attention to the audience - owes something to Davis' influence.

Dylan was signed to Columbia by John Hammond Jnr who was best known at the time for his involvement in the careers of Benny Goodman, Charlie Christian, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Big Joe Turner and other jazz and blues artists. Dylan was known in the company as 'Hammond's Folly'.

In Chronicles, Dylan also recalls jamming in Bleecker Street coffee house with free jazz pioneers Cecil Taylor, Billy Higgins and Don Cherry. 'We played The Water is Wide, the old folk song,' he recalled. During the years he was writing his folk protest anthems Dylan spent a lot of time, by his own account, listening to Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and George Russell, and believed that many of Duke Ellington's pieces 'sounded like sophisticated folk music'.

Until recently Dylan's appreciation of jazz hasn't been much reciprocated although Nina Simone recorded a noteworthy version of Just Like a Woman. But lately singers Ben Sidran and Barb Jungr have recorded jazz-inflected tribute albums of Dylan tunes, and some have been done by guitarists Bill Frisell and Henry Kaiser.

Blues artists got the point from an early stage. Dylan has written many songs in a blues structure, of which the most often covered are Highway 61 Revisited, something of a theme tune for Johnny Winter, and It Takes a Lot to Laugh It Takes a Train to Cry, recorded by Taj Mahal among others. Dylan has also specifically paid tribute in song to the blues artists who most influenced him. Blind Willie McTell, an evocation of the eponymous bluesman, is one of his few great songs from the 1980s, and 2001's Love and Theft includes High Water (For Charlie Patton).

Take Three

Three jazz and blues albums with a Bob Dylan connection.

Dylan Different (Nardis, 2009): Ben Sidran sings and plays a selection of Dylan tunes.

The Man in the Long Black Coat (Linn, 2011): Barb Jungr's second collection of Dylan tunes is officially not to be released until May, but is already available in Hong Kong.

The Definitive Blind Willie McTell 1927-1935 (Catfish, 2005): 'Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell,' Dylan insisted, and listening to this collection is the best way to get his point.