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Beatlemania at 50: Jazz embraces the band's legacy

The Beatles and Jazz Select Discography
The Beatles and Jazz Select Discography

There is much hullabaloo in the media this week regarding the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ arrival in America. That’s right, the Fab Four reached our shores a half century ago on Friday and made their iconic “Ed Sullivan” appearance 50 years ago Sunday.
It’s worth noting that, while some jazz artists and listeners wrote the Beatles off in the early years, there was a growing appreciation for the group and its impact as the ‘60s progressed. Moreover, some jazz figures intrinsically understood the treasures to be mined from the Lennon-McCartney catalog.
Count Basie, for example, released “Basie’s Beatles Bag” in September 1966 and followed it four years later with “Count Basie on the Beatles.” Ella Fitzgerald recorded “Can’t Buy Me Love” in 1964, as did Stanley Turrentine. Bud Shank took on "Hello Goodbye" in 1967; Grant Green, “A Day in the Life” three years later.
The decades since the group’s demise have seen the Beatles’ songs – including such George Harrison classics as “Something” – emerge as part of the standard jazz repertoire. What follows is a (very, very) partial list of who’s recorded what.
“Eleanor Rigby” (Joshua Redman), “Day Tripper” (Ramsey Lewis), “Yesterday” (Oscar Peterson; OK, everyone), “Hey Jude” (George Shearing), “Lady Madonna” (Cal Tjader), “Here Comes the Sun” (Nina Simone), “Flying” (Herbie Mann), “I Am the Walrus” (Bud Shank and Chet Baker), “Norwegian Wood” (Buddy Rich), “I’ll Follow the Sun” (Don Byron), “Tomorrow Never Knows” (Steve Marcus), “Across the Universe” (Geoff Keezer). For some more tasty titles, check out the slideshow.
For his part, George Benson recorded an entire album of Beatles tunes with “The Other Side of Abbey Road.” In addition to that disc and the two Basie albums, there is the highly enjoyable “Blue Note Plays the Beatles” collection and a slew of discs from the group Beatlejazz, featuring David Kikosi (piano), Larry Grenadier (bass) and Brian Melvin (drums).
Grenadier is best known for his work with Brad Mehldau and that’s significant because the pianist, I would argue, is the leading Beatles proponent in jazz today, at least judging by his catalog. In a decade-plus as a recording artist, Mehldau has released his takes on “Martha My Dear,” “She’s Leaving Home,” “Dear Prudence,” “Mother Nature’s Son” and “Blackbird.” He’s even performed Oasis’ “Wonderwall,” a track with an unmistakable Beatles lineage. Mehldau was once asked what attracts him to the Beatles and the music of Radiohead.

The Beatles

They both have a certain harmonic language that's informed by some classical stuff. That might have something to do with it. There's a complexity to the architecture of their tunes, complexity not as an end in itself, but something compelling with layers, that draws you in further. There's an emotional directness.
Also, I guess if you name both of those bands, they both have a balance between something sweet and almost sentimental and something acidic and sarcastic – a nice admixture of sentiment that makes a heady brew. In the Beatles, it's obviously the John/Paul dichotomy.

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