First Appeared in The Music Box, July 2008, Volume 15, #7
Written by John Metzger
Sun July 13, 2008, 02:00 PM CDT
Time and again over the decades, the jazz community has turned to popular music for material and inspiration, and for a while, at least, the results typically were quite inspired. As the ’60s tumbled into the ’70s, however, things began to go horribly awry. At their worst, jazz-fusion groups pandered to rock audiences merely by tackling songs in a straightforward fashion. Instead of improvising around a theme, they adhered quite closely to a song’s melodic structure, altering only the instrumentation that was used. Meanwhile, West Coast jazz became even smoother, slicker, and, hence, more accessible. When the two sub-genres merged, their crossover potential and commercial appeal grew exponentially, though this undoubtedly also came at the expense of artistic merit.
Although Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters wasn’t a perfect album — it might have fared better as an all-instrumental foray — it nevertheless was a breath of fresh air that blew through a field that had grown far too stagnant. Many artists, of course, were continuing to rework songs that by now had become standards, but frequently they did so in relative anonymity. Using contemporary pop material as the basis for jazz-oriented excursions, however, never seemed to yield anything even remotely rewarding. With one fell swoop, Hancock proved that there was a lot of fertile ground left to be explored, if only the proper approach were taken.
Considering his competition, Hancock’s subsequent Grammy win in the category of "album of the year" was much deserved. With any luck, it will spark a renewed interest in jazz that has been long overdue. The downside may come, though, from those who wrongfully view the pop-oriented underpinnings of River: The Joni Letters as the reasons for its success. Rather, it was the old-school perspective that Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and the rest of the instrumentalists brought to the material that made it work. Instead of following Joni Mitchell’s compositions like strict blueprints, they employed them as guides, reinventing her songs in the process.
Unfortunately, David Benoit, who is no stranger to chasing commercial success, takes the groundwork that Hancock so carefully laid and bends it in the wrong direction. His latest effort Heroes is meant to pay tribute to those who have inspired him throughout his career, and looking solely at the compositional credits, he has pieced together a rather intriguing collection of material. Songs by Elton John (Your Song) and The Beatles (She’s Leaving Home) brush up against hits by The Jackson 5 (Never Can Say Goodbye) and Michael Jackson (Human Nature). In addition, Benoit tackles tunes by Horace Silver (Song for My Father), Bill Evans (Waltz for Debbie), and Dave Brubeck (Blue Rondo a La Turk).
For the record, not everything on Heroes is a complete failure, which is why the album inevitably feels so frustrating. Given his history, it would be expected that Benoit would craft a streamlined affair containing nothing more than a series of his pretty but unimaginative interpretations. Heroes does begin with some selections that are fairly rote, but just before it can be written off completely, Benoit dives headfirst into a cover of The Doors’ Light My Fire, during which he playfully folds bits of Riders on the Storm into the tune’s improvisational midsection. Although his flashiness proves to be nothing more than a tease, it sufficiently highlights not only that Benoit has more to offer than he typically puts on display but also that he isn’t necessarily going to adhere to a contemporary jazz framework for the duration of the endeavor. Sure enough, later in the set, Benoit delivers inspired performances of Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debbie and Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo a La Turk as well as his own A Twisted Little Etude. In effect, the collection’s final three tracks save it from being a tedious exercise. If only Benoit had taken a few more liberties with the rest of the material, Heroes would have stood a chance at being something special.
Of Further Interest...
Heroes is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box