For those who think that the Great American songbook is limited to the works of Porter, Berlin, Gershwin, Kahn, et al, then they are stuck in a time warp. While there is no denying the durability and constant source of inspiration that canon has produced, many of us grew up with our own Great American songbook, forged from the music and lyrics of rock, soul and pop music of the sixties and seventies. It is no surprise that contemporary jazz musicians are finding many of these gems, songs that still hold an appeal to younger audiences born years after they were first played, to be a news source of inspiration and interesting vehicles for improvisation. Songs We Like, a recent release from the Hazelrigg Brothers, is a case in point.
Following in the footsteps of artists like the Bad Plus or Brad Mehldau, and more ambitious outings like John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet, pianist George Hazelrigg and brother bassist Geoff Hazelrigg along with the intuitive drummer John O’Reilly, Jr. have offered a thoroughly entertaining set of nine contemporary readings of some songs that seem to lend themselves naturally to creative interpretation in the jazz trio format.
The compositions are as interesting as they are challenging. People who know the music well, often come to the music with expectations of how it should sound, but for the most part the Hazelriggs have managed to re-imagine these songs with enough fealty to the originals to satisfy even the most rabid purist. I found myself gleefully singing along with many of the tracks.
The songs run the gamut; chamber-rock from Jethro Tull, electric blues from Jimi Hendrix, Reggae-tinged pop from Men at Work, rock-jazz fusion from Steely Dan and contemporary pop from Sting; two from hard-metal rockers Led Zeppelin and one each from the classical composers Bela Bartok and Johann Fischer, makeup the slections.
The repertoire is fresh and played in an inspired impressionistic way. Jethro Tull’s “Living in The Past,” with Geoff’s dancing bass line introduction peppered with some rhythmically delicious tom work by drummer Reilly leads the way.
The Australian group “Men at Work,” whose reggae-inspired beats captivated the airways in the seventies, is represented by lead singer Colin Hay’s “Catch a Star.” The trio captures a stripped-down feel of the song, while carrying on a dynamic conversation amongst themselves. The only thing that is missing is the Australian’s haunting voice.
The music of Jimi Hendrix, long an inspiration to generations, is represented here by the psychedelia inspired “If 6 Was 9.” Who could expect to top the guitarist’s electronic wizardry or the sheer power of his dazzling virtuosity, but the Hazelrigg’s wisely do not attempt either. They strip the repeating bass line to its rhythmic, heart-throbbing core. The song is rendered as the three-chord blues it is, with some improvisational forays: an interesting off-to-the-races break, a featured drum solo of restrained polyphony and some weaving bass lines make for this interesting take on a Hendrix classic.
Bartok’s magisterial “Evening in the Country” features some animated, articulate pianowork by brother George, shimmering cymbal work by the understated Reilly and the buoyant bass of brother Geoff.
The piano opening on Led Zeppelin’s “Ten Years Gone,” is immediately recognizable and although the music cannot be expected to be as explosive as the metallic, heavy guitar-drum-centric original, the trio still pulls it off admirably with some excellent piano work by brother George building to a satisfying climax in a rumble of sound and fury.
Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s music, the music of Steely Dan, is perhaps the music most easily adaptable to the jazz piano trio format and here on their “King of the World” it fits these guys like a glove. Isn’t this the way it was always played?
The trio returns to the classical realm with Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer’s “Passacaglia, from the Daughters of Zeus, Urania,” a pastoral composition that somehow gives the brothers a chance to show how classics can be modernly molded to fit the program without seeming at all out of place.
Sting’s “Spirit in the Material World” is played allegro with bassist Geoff adding some walking bass lines and some brief Arco accents. O’Reilly has a sixth sense as to what works when these two intuitive brothers build a head of steam.
The set ends with another Led Zeppelin composition, “What Is and What Should Never Be.” The trio treating this as a slow shuffle.
Songs We Like is an engaging recording that never strays too far away from the basic melodies that made these songs from the sixties and seventies so likeable and memorable in the first place. What the Hazelrigg Brothers and Mr. O’Reilly have shown is that they can also be the springboard for some inventive re-interpretation.