Elton John has been making the media rounds from The New York Times to National Public Radio in support of his new album, “The Diving Board.” The disc is being hailed as John’s best effort in years, with critics noting that the recording returns the artist to the piano-centric sound of his 1970s heyday.
Those were monster years indeed for the man born Reginald Dwight, an era in which he was not only the world’s biggest pop star, achieving a fame only matched since by mid-‘80s Michael Jackson, but created an indelible body of work. John and lyricist Bernie Taupin in that decade cemented their status as the finest pop songwriting team since Lennon-McCartney.
Strange then, despite the duo’s popularity and remarkably sturdy songbook, far fewer jazz artists have covered their material, particularly when compared to the Beatles. Many of those classic tunes, to my ears anyway, naturally lend themselves to jazz exploration and improvisation – “Bennie and the Jets,” “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” to cite just a few.
The most notable jazz John jaunt is “Your Songs: The Music of Elton John,” a 2007 release featuring Pietro Tonolo (saxophone), Gil Goldstein (piano), Steve Swallow (bass) and Paul Motian (drums). A CD Baby reviewer offers this appraisal:
Admittedly, I've always found Elton John's music to be totally sappy – until now. This album reveals what a great platform for improvisation his tunes are. All four musicians who make up this quartet recording are in top form, albeit Steve Swallow and Gil Goldstein in particular shine. (If you dig Swallow's playing, just check out "Your Song.").
Jazztimes in its review notes that listeners will likely “warm up to the album’s seven tuneful interpretations” and adds the musicians “aren’t out to willfully deconstruct or even playfully subvert John’s best-known themes. Far from it.”
Tonolo’s soprano sax take on the album’s title track, for example, hews to the melody so faithfully that it invites listeners to hum along, but the arrangement boasts some subtle touches as well, including the elegant melodic variations spun by Swallow as the performance opens. Similarly, “Blue Eyes,” a showcase for Tonolo’s throaty tenor, won’t throw off anyone familiar with the melody, but the noir-ish arrangement, colored by Motian’s dabbing brushes, is certainly seductive enough to answer the question, why Elton John? Light on its feet, thanks again to Motian’s inspired handiwork, the quartet’s version of “Tiny Dancer” also has its charms, but it’s no match for the triple-meter take on “Rocket Man” or the harmonically tweaked arrangement of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” Rounding out the album is a pair of Tonolo-penned tunes, including the John-inspired, winding theme “White Street.”
“Your Songs” underscores the value of other jazz artists plumbing the extensive and acclaimed John-Taupin songbook.
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