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The New Cool: Battling Beatles vs. Rolling Stones jazz covers

When The Beatles battle The Rolling Stones in modern jazz covers, everybody wins.
Abe Beeson
When The Beatles battle The Rolling Stones in modern jazz covers, everybody wins.

It's a musical battle that's been argued for more than 50 years: who's better, The Beatles or The Rolling Stones? Happily, there are only winners in this battle. This week on The New Cool, you'll hear two modern jazz pianists submit their takes on these two titans of the British Invasion of the 1960s.

Personally, I've always followed in my father's footsteps with these two bands. We both prefer the rough-edged early recordings of The Rolling Stones, but for their later albums we'll take the experimental pop of The Beatles.

For jazz musicians, both groups have provided countless opportunities for improvisation with their hook-filled songbooks. Much like the standards by composers Gershwin, Porter, Arlen and the rest, these catchy pop songs are natural sources of inspiration and touchstones for listeners alike.

On this week's New Cool, you'll hear a show-favorite mashup from Brad Mehldau's 2002 album Largo. A collection of Mehldau's more electronic side, the mini-medley of the Jobim classic "Wave" segues to the Fab Four's "Mother Nature's Son" from their "White Album."

The Beatles song had been interpreted by jazz piano great Ramsey Lewis on his tribute to the pop band in 1968. That recording includes a strange synthesizer introduction before Lewis' acoustic piano takes the theme, backed by a too-lush string orchestra. The improvisations are fine, but the production seems made to smooth out the long-hair roughness of the Englishmen.

Mehldau's version hits the ground running with breakbeat drums, and the band leader doubling on synthesizer and vibraphone. The song begins with the Jobim melody, then segues from the vibes solo to a more mellow energy presenting the child-like tune of "Mother Nature's Son."

Credit Photo by Tina Tyrell
Brad Mehldau has recorded the Beatles song "Mother Nature's Son" on acoustic piano as well as vibraphone and synthesizer.

The beautiful, fragile theme rides above the pulsing modern drum rhythms that build to Mehldau's tuneful improvisation. That contemporary rhythm fades with the vibraphone and synths to a satisfying conclusion.

An acoustic piano and sax duet version from a couple years later appears on Joel Frahm's Don't Explain album, but the Largo recording takes the contemporary jazz cake.

The Rolling Stones also have been explored by jazz musicians from the beginning. Joe Pass released a full album tribute to the rockers in 1966, featuring horns and plenty of Pass' trademark chord work. Their recording of "Paint It, Black," like the Ramsey Lewis album, carries a similar feeling of making rock music palatable to mainstream jazz fans, though Pass makes the most of his solos.

Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo also covered the Stones in 1966 on his album Jazz Raga, featuring overdubbed sitar for a sound that's nearer to the psychedelic leanings coming to pop music of the late 60s. Szabo's take on "Paint It, Black" truly evokes the mysterious sensibility of the original.

A recent rendition of that early Stones hit came courtesy pianist Eric Lewis, aka ELEW. One of the premier purveyors of "jazz rock" in the 21st century, ELEW uses his acoustic piano to bring new life to the song. A solo recording, his regal introduction quickly transitions to energetic pounding. At an efficient three minutes, this rock piano piece fits neatly into the pop world.

Saturday's New Cool will feature a new acoustic piano trio recording of "Paint It, Black" from the new Tim Ray album Excursions and Adventures. This all-star affair includes bassist John Patitucci and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, and Ray doesn't waste their immense talents.

Credit Photo by Denise Bass
Tim Ray's latest trio effort includes a few modern covers and some jazz classics.

The Boston-based pianist gradually states the song's familiar refrain, but the full trio quickly takes matters into their own hands. The trio stretch the song to twice the length, digging into each nook and cranny the melody allows. Patitucci's electric bass solo is methodical and seeking, moving to Carrington's impressive takeover. She drives the trio with confident fills and an urgent groove, but never overreaches.

Ray's piano gets the final word, restating the song's hook, then bursting into a rocking solo of his own. His version crashes like waves on the shore. It's a brilliant blend of jazz and rock energy, while keeping modern jazz secured to the piano trio tradition.

Whether you prefer The Rolling Stones or The Beatles, I know you'll get a charge out of both modern jazz perspectives on these legendary rock groups. These are just two reminders of the limitless possibilities jazz musicians have always had, with no end of melodic opportunities gifted from the world of rock n' roll and beyond.

The New Cool airs Saturdays from 3 to 5 p.m., hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.

Abe grew up in Western Washington, a third generation Seattle/Tacoma kid. It was as a student at Pacific Lutheran University that Abe landed his first job at KNKX, editing and producing audio for news stories. It was a Christmas Day shift no one else wanted that gave Abe his first on-air experience which led to overnights, then Saturday afternoons, and started hosting Evening Jazz in 1998.