5 jazz versions of pop songs you really should hear

Ollie Howell. Christopher Pike / The National
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Don’t dig jazz? Want to understand the music but struggle to “get” it? Or just clueless about where to start your jazz journey?

We (might) have the answer.

Jazz has a long tradition of reinterpreting the music of the day – the “jazz standard” repertoire many musicians still work through nightly today is largely comprised of the pop songs of the genre’s early heyday.

In recent years a new generation of players are increasingly turning to more modern fare, and interpreting familiar pop tunes in novel and compelling ways – and these tracks often offer an open door to new listeners.

We asked top UK jazz drummer Ollie Howell – also a presenter on Jazz London Radio and Jazz FM – to pick his five favourite jazz covers of pop songs. Go on, give ‘em a listen.

Brad Mehldau – Blackbird (The Beatles)

“This is one of my favourite recordings of all time, actually. There aren’t many reharmonisations or musically-intellectual additions, it’s just a really honest and heartfelt piano trio version of, what I would consider to be, one of the most beautiful songs ever written.”

Gretchen Parlato – Weak (SWV)

“The groove on this track is so infectious, and it’s just so effortlessly cool. Some of my favourite musicians are featured on the album it’s taken from, and it’s such a unique take on the original. I used to listen to this on repeat a lot at music college when I first heard it.”

Justin Kauflin – A Day In The Life (The Beatles)

“Justin’s arrangement of this tune – another of my favourite Beatles songs – I’ve always found to be so inspiring. The melody’s played very stripped back at the start and end, but the middle section is a wonderful reharmonisation and arrangement. This track was played a lot during my residency at Dubai’s Q’s in-between sets on the house PA, and it quickly became a favourite for the rest of my band too.”

SFJazz Collective – Superstition (Stevie Wonder)

“I can still remember the feeling I got when I watched the video for this track for the first time – seriously cool arrangement, both rhythmically and harmonically. It’s got so much soul and groove, and the solos are awesome. The arrangement is by Miguel Zenon, the alto player in the band, and I’ve always loved his writing. This group does an annual concert series, focusing on a different composer every year, and the Stevie year this was taken from was one of my favourites so far – although they focussed on Michael Jackson songs last year, which was also awesome.”

NEXT Collective – Perth (Bon Iver)

“This whole album is amazing, so it was hard to pick just one track from it, but Bon Iver are one of my all-time favourite groups, so it’s great to hear this unique version of this song, and I love the energy in this version, especially as it builds towards the end. You can feel the respect for the original song in this arrangement too, and in their performance of it.”

Ollie's new album, Self-Identity is out now on Ropeadope Records. Find out more: olliehowell.com, twitter.com/OllieHowellJazz, www.instagram.com/olliehowelljazz, and www.facebook.com/olliehowellmusic.