Herbie Hancock has always sought to take jazz and his version of it forwards. From his Blue Note album Maiden Voyage in 1965, Hancock has always deliberately pushed in new directions, sometimes courting popular taste and sometimes experimenting with something genuinely different. His vision is simple – he understands that just about anything can be grist to the jazz mill.
The New Standards came out in 1996. Hancock was well know for music that broke both musical and technological barriers – Headhunters (1973) and Rockit (1983) for example – but here was something new. Hancock applied the jazz term ‘standards’ to the contemporary pop repertoire. The mix was pretty varied too – songs by Lennon and McCartney, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, Prince and others. It wasn’t what many listeners were expecting as his next move.
Today, it’s more of a norm for artists like Brad Meldhau to champion Radiohead and Nick Drake and for groups like Robert Mitchell’s 3io to play Massive Attack. Miles Davis – as so often – had led the way in 1985 by recording two contemporary tunes (Time after Time and Human Nature) but these were played pretty straight – certainly on record. They are jazzed up versions of the pop tunes rather than jazz interpretations. That’s not to belittle their impact and, indeed, when Davis and his band stretched out on either song the result was often magical.
But this is a major point. New standards are not merely pop tunes with a few flattened blue notes and maybe a change of tempo. Standards given the jazz treatment are reworkings, usually of songs not composed by jazz artists, that use melodic, rhythmic and harmonic elements of the song but – as Eric Morecambe once famously said in another but related context – “not necessarily in that order”.
By titling the album The New Standards, Hancock puts down an ambitious marker. The message is clear: these cuts could be like the timeless Broadway classic standards of the 1930s – Summertime (1935), My Funny Valentine (1937) and All the Things You Are (1939) – in that they provide the basis for imaginative reinterpretations that have their own unique identity shaped by the performer rather than the composer.
So twelve years ago Herbie Hancock took a clutch of great tunes and the best contemporary jazz performers into the studio to record what was to be a quietly innovative record. From the opening blast that is New York Minute (Don Henley) through to his own composition and final track Manhattan (New York Lights and Love) this album – mostly – works. Hancock is magnificently supported by Brecker who plays with energy and control on both tenor and – unusually – soprano sax – and while Scofield is less active across the album, his contributions are always telling. For this writer, one track says it all. Hancock’s version of Peter Gabriel’s Mercy Street is a triumph – from the subtle opening tablas of Don Alias to the closing Brecker/Hancock riffing it’s confident, clever, relaxed and engaging.
Of course, some tunes don’t work. It’s quite hard to like Norwegian Wood anyway and this rather literal and wimpish version doesn’t really work. It was the wrong Beatles choice and all sorts of tracks would have worked better – Lady Madonna, Blackbird, Sister Sadie, In My Life. But this is forgiveable because so much of the album works so well.
Unexpectedly, Scarborough Fair – one of the oldest standards in the book along with Greensleeves – is a triumph. Similarly, one of Prince’s less well known compositions Thieves in the Temple (from the rather dismal double album Rainbow Bridge) really recasts the song with a different tempo and a stong propulsive groove with powerful soloing again from Brecker and Scofield. Throughout, Hancocks’s own contributions, usually on acoustic piano, are often more impassioned and less conventionally mannered than we might expect – listen to the delicacy of touch on Kurt Cobain’s All Apologies, for example – and Jack deJohnette on drums and Dave Holland on bass are just the rhythm section to beat.
This is an album you should own. There are tracks like Mercy Street, All Apologies and Thieves in the Temple that you’ll come back to again and again. Each is a little jewel of construction, full of sparkle and innovation. Check out The New Standards – you won’t regret it.