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When jazz masters meet pop classics

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I had the opportunity a few years back to interview David Sanborn. The saxophonist has enjoyed a long and stellar career fronting his own ensemble but the reality is that many of us first encountered his horn sound as a session musician. Sanborn was among the busiest studio players in the 1970s and ‘80s, lending his sax to pop hits from the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Elton John, Kenny Loggins, Cat Stevens, Pure Prairie League and David Bowie, to name but a few.
Sanborn’s dual-track career got my mind ruminating – in something of a twist, I acknowledge – on recognized jazz greats who have lent their talents to pop records.
Naturally, I am not the first to have this thought. Jazz.com – an invaluable resource for staying jazz current – blogged about this very topic and it’s tough to argue with its dozen choices, which include Sonny Rollins on the Rolling Stones’ “Waiting For A Friend,” Phil Woods’ work on Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are,” Wayne Shorter’s appearance on Steely Dan’s “Aja” and Stan Getz’s underappreciated turn on Huey Lewis and the News’ “Small World Pt. 2.”
That said, I figure I’d add a half dozen of my own favorites to the list of jazz greats guesting on pop records.

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Song: “Shipbuilding”
Artist: Elvis Costello
Jazz guest: Chet Baker
Album: “Punch the Clock” (1983)
That this exquisite ballad represents Costello’s reaction to the Falklands War only underlines again that, despite the era, he always was more brat than punk. He also knows music in ways those buzzsaw boys never bothered and that’s reflected by his decision to showcase Baker’s aching trumpet work on “Shipbuilding.”
“Truthfully my ideal was Miles Davis, though I was probably thinking of the Arabic lines of ‘Sketches of Spain’ rather than his recent fusion records,” Costello said later.

If that seemed improbable then what happened next was almost miraculous. I opened the paper to find that Chet Baker was playing a hurriedly announced residency at The Canteen. I went alone to find Chet in a wonderful musical form despite the presence of several drunken bores who would loudly cal for more booze in the middle of some of his most delicate playing. You got the feeling that this happened most nights but it seemed particularly appropriate that the main culprit was said to be one of London's leading jazz critics. Between sets I introduced myself to Chet who was wandering about in the club untroubled by patrons. There is no false modesty in saying he had no idea who I was. Why the hell should he? However he accepted my invitation … I mentioned a fee. He said, "Scale." I think I probably doubled it.
It was a tense but rewarding session. Chet took a little time to grasp the unusual structure of the song but once he had it he played beautifully even if he looks pretty deathly in the studio photos. At the session I handed Chet a copy of "Almost Blue," a song which was modeled on his style. He ended up recording it but that's another story.

Song: “Madame George”
Artist: Van Morrison
Jazz guest: Connie Kaye
Album: “Astral Weeks” (1968)
Kaye had been drumming with the Modern Jazz Quartet for nigh on a decade when he entered a New York studio in 1968 for the two days of sessions that would yield not only a classic Morrison disc but one of the decade’s seminal albums. To be sure, the emphasis throughout is on the vocals and lyrics but the rhythm section of Kaye and Richard Davis is nothing less than sublime as it grounds Morrison’s Celtic soul and blues in haunting jazzy harmonies. Any of the album’s eight tracks can serve as a case in point, but I feel myself inextricably drawn to the mystery that is “Madame George.”

Song: “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”
Artist: James Taylor
Jazz guest: Michael Brecker
Album: “One Man Dog” (1972)
Taylor’s fourth album is, simply put, a dud marked by compositional dead ends and uninspired instrumentals. Yet shining from the middle of the mess is “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” as warm and appealing a tune as JT ever composed (and that’s saying something). Topping it off is Brecker’s tasty tenor solo, which was recorded not during the initial sessions at Taylor’s house but later at a New York studio. The sax imbues the song with a certain sensuous gravity.

Song: “Little Wing”
Artist: Sting
Jazz guest: Gil Evans
Album: “…nothing like the sun” (1987)
Sting launched his solo career – and much debate over whether jazz artists should slum with pop stars – with “Dream of the Blue Turtles” (1985). The jazz connection was fortified on the follow up when he covered this Jimi Hendrix composition with an arrangement from Gil Evans. The result is one of the album’s highlights, a track that brings out the quiet sweeping emotion of Hendrix at his best. The song is among the tracks Sting and Evans recorded together that summer at the Perugia Jazz Festival. That concert is available on an import disc and features the two collaborating on Police hits like “Roxanne” as well as jazz standards such as “Strange Fruit.”

Song: “Have A Good Time”
Artist: Paul Simon
Jazz guest: Phil Woods
Album: “Still Crazy After All These Years” (1975)
There’s no shortage of great pop tracks Woods has lent his saxophone to; one favorite is Steely Dan’s amazing “Doctor Wu” from this same year. I’m giving the nod to this Simon track for a couple of reasons. The first is that the lyric speaks to both an individual and generation coming to grips with the passing of the activism of the ‘60s and early ‘70s: “Maybe I’m blind/to the fate of mankind/But what can be done?” The second is that Woods’ mile-a-minute solo, which is tacked on at the end, gives the entire track a shot of adrenaline just when you’d think it was bound to fade out.

Song: “Kid Charlemagne”
Artist: Steely Dan
Jazz guest: Larry Carlton
Album: “The Royal Scam” (1976)
You can’t put a list like this together without the Dan, easily the most jazz-happy rock act ever. (It’s not for nothing that the piano intro to “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” is a total Horace Silver lift.) There is any number of great jazz players who have lent their talent to the duo’s recordings. Carlton, however, emerged over the course of the ‘70s as the closest thing to a staff guitarist. With a variety of songs to choose from – Carlton is particularly fine on the “Gaucho” album – I still have to opt for this much-played track and its blazing guitar solo. The guitarist was once asked about his work on “Kid Charlemagne.”

It's my claim to fame (chuckles). I did maybe two hours worth of solos that we didn't keep. Then I played the first half of the intro, which they loved, so they kept that. I punched in for the second half. So it was done in two parts and the solo that fades out in the end was done in one pass. I can't think of anything else that I still like to listen to as strongly as that.

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