Nguyen Le's jazz cover of Dark Side of the Moon

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 November, 2014, 8:16pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 February, 2015, 12:26pm

Jazz musicians have always used contemporary pop music as raw material for their improvisations, and since the 1970s rock, soul, reggae and more have also been up for grabs.

The covers have been of individual compositions rather than whole albums, generally speaking, although in the late 1990s the Blue Note label got some of its artists to rework the music from some big hit LPs in its Cover Series.

Guitarist Charlie Hunter took on Bob Marley's Natty Dread, saxophonist Bob Belden tackled Carole King's Tapestry, and guitarist Fareed Haque chose Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's Déjà Vu.

The results were mixed, but it was the sort of thing one expected latter-day Blue Note to do. Not so much the German ACT label, to which French-Vietnamese guitarist Nguyen Le was the first artist to be exclusively signed.

However, Le's latest release for the label, a collaborative project with arranger Michael Gibbs and the NDR Bigband, is entitled Celebrating Dark Side of the Moon. Le has chosen to record fusion jazz reinterpretations of all 10 tracks on the original Pink Floyd album, in some cases interspersed with new compositions extending the themes.

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the original album's release, and Le was the featured guitarist on a concert performance in Hamburg of an arrangement of the album by Gibbs, performed by the NDR Bigband. Three of those arrangements also feature here, but Le has reworked the other songs afresh himself.

Le has delved into the rock repertoire previously, most notably with his 2002 album Purple which was a tribute to Jimi Hendrix. Many of those arrangements recall in some respects Gil Evans' Hendrix charts, and those remain the gold standard for rock reworked as jazz.

Other participants in the new recording include Youn Sun Nah on vocals, Gary Husband on drums, and Jurgen Attig on bass. All other parts are played by members of the NDR Bigband conducted by Jorg Achim Keller.

Does it work? On the whole yes. The arrangements are sufficiently removed from the originals to be worthwhile new statements, but close enough to be recognisable. Money is particularly effective. It would be interesting to know what Roger Waters, David Gilmour and Nick Mason think of it.

The late Amy Winehouse started out, if not quite as a jazz singer, singing with jazz groups, and Hong Kong-based divas Ginger Kwan and Jennifer Palor, who are fans, have devised a tribute to her which they will perform on Friday and Saturday at the new Orange Peel venue in D'Aguilar Street with an encore at Grappa's Cellar on November 29.

Their previous successful Motown and Stevie Wonder tribute shows augur well for this one, and getting one step closer to the original performer than is normally possible they have secured the participation of former Winehouse guitarist Robin Banerjee, also a jazz musician now well known on the London scene.

He can be seen on Winehouse's Live in London DVD, and some YouTube clips of him performing reggae-inspired jazz with his own Motif Ska/Jazz Trio and the larger Jazz Jamaica band suggest that he'll be well worth hearing. London drummer Davide Pasqualini will also appear.

Tickets for all three shows are HK$288 (advance), HK$328 (door).

Take Three

Three more jazz reinterpretations of successful pop/rock albums.

  • The Other Side of Abbey Road (1969, A&M Records): a pioneering full pop/rock album cover from George Benson, who would shortly become a crossover star in his own right. Plenty of Benson's vocals, but already not as much of his guitar as many jazz fans would probably have liked. Not quite all of the tracks on the original album, but most of the best (and Octopus's Garden) are present, resequenced and all significantly differently arranged from the originals.
  • What's Going On (1997, Blue Note): saxophonist Everette Harp takes an oddly conservative approach to a groundbreaking Marvin Gaye album, which had a fair amount of jazz in it already, with the sax merely replacing Gaye's vocals in many of the arrangements, and guest vocalists singing the lyrics of others. Well produced, but it takes some challenging music dangerously close to easy listening territory.
  • The Sweetest Punch (1999, Decca): in many respects the most interesting jazz reinterpretation of a pop album, it was made before its inspiration was released. Bill Frisell and his musicians, including drummer Brian Blade and bassist Viktor Krauss, cut these versions of the tunes on Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach's Painted From Memory concurrently with the sessions for that album, using only the composers' demos and charts without hearing the arrangements. The two records make fascinating back-to-back listening.