Nov 25, 2011
When jazz lovers like myself talk about "the new standards", we're usually talking material written in "the Rock Era" that entices jazz musicians to record unique or different versions of the song. Well established singer-songwriters like James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon have been recorded by jazz musicians for years, with Joni's catalog becoming something of a touchstone for jazz musicians lately. Bands like Radiohead and Pavement have found their songs improvised upon as well.
Two singer-songwriters who passed away too soon seem to be the most covered artists these days - Elliot Smith and Nick Drake. I'll focus on Smith another time, but for today which is the 37th anniversary of the sudden death from an overdose (accidental or otherwise) of antidepressants at the age of 26, it's Drake.
Barely noticed by the record-buying public and never championed by critics during his lifetime, Drake recorded three album - Five Leaves Left, Bryter Later and Pink Moon - that have become essential listening. Other posthumous collections and re-releases have since followed. Whether or not you first heard Drake on the Volkswagen television commercial that co-opted "Pink Moon", if you've listened, you're likely a believer.
So why have jazz musicians been drawn to his music? Other than the hipster factor of recording the songs of a "doomed sensitive British artist", there is the intricate harmonies in his compositions. Drake obsessively practiced his guitar, and worked with alternative tunings and clusters of chords that make his music unique in the singer-songwriter oeve. He was never afraid to avoid classic song structure, and his hushed voice often downplayed what are now recognized as strong melodies.
Pianist Brad Mehldau has been a champion of Drake's music among jazz musicians. You can listen to his explanation of why he finds his music so enthralling in this NPR interview from 2004. Mehldau claims to have been first turned on to Drake while hanging out at a club in Los Angeles:
The first time I heard Nick Drake was someone covering "River Man". I thought, what the hell was that beautiful evocative thing in 5/4? The chords reminded me of something modal that I had identified with Coltrane, but it was being sung on a guitar.
Click here to listen to jazz versions of songs written by Nick Drake, including:
Brad Mehldau - "River Man" from Deregulating Jazz.
Taylor Eigsti - "Pink Moon" from Daylight at Midnight.
Charle Hunter Quintet featuring Norah Jones - "Day Is Done" from Songs from the Analog Playground.
Chris Gestrin & Simon Fisk - "One of These Things First" from Poor Boy, The Songs of Nick Drake.
Tessa Souter - "River Man" from Obsession.
Brad Mehldau - "Things Left Behind the Sun" from Live in Tokyo.
Kate Hammet-Vaughan - "Poor Boy" from Poor Boy, The Songs of Nick Drake.
Brad Mehldau - "River Man" from Live in Tokyo.