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Jazz Corner: Imitation, Flattery And Tributes

From Louis Armstrong paying tribute to Fats Waller to Kurt Elling's dedication to John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman

Louis Armstrong. Photo: Herman Hiller. CC by 2.0/Wikimedia Commons.

American jazz legend Louis Armstrong. Photo: Herman Hiller/CC by 2.0/Wikimedia Commons

One has heard musicians record their musical tributes to other musicians. For example you have Satch Plays Fats where Louis Armstrong (Satch) plays the music of Fats Waller, the American pianist, singer and songwriter, or Carmen McRae Sings Monk or The Latin Dizzy Gillespie by various artists. These are just random examples to illustrate the ‘tribute;’ there are plenty of other such instances. Everybody sings the Beatles!

We have encountered a new type of tribute in recent times. In 1963, John Coltrane and vocalist Johnny Hartman recorded an album together called, of course, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. It is an iconic album in many ways. The music is simple, straightforward and very easy on the ears. These two fine musicians had not met prior to the recording date. Hartman had misgivings about the collaboration — he had heard the uptempo and even avant garde playing of Coltrane, while he himself was a smooth balladeer and wondered about the outcome. He need not have worried. Coltrane had a mellow, sensitive, almost reflective side to his playing. He brought this into play for this recording. The interesting and in contemporary terminology ‘mind-boggling’ aspect to this: they did the entire recording without a retake. What’s more, as they drove to the recording studio, they were not decided about the last song for the album. Then they heard Nat King Cole on the car radio singing Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and decided to include that song. This is a complicated song with many changes and would normally require several rehearsals. However, in the hands of these masters, it sounded perfect. This is a precious, seductive jazz album and today, even 63 years since it was recorded, Coltrane and Hartman sounds contemporary and relevant.

A current jazz singer, Kurt Elling, like many of his generation, has been inspired enough by the Coltrane Hartman album to create an entire album of his own in dedication to the masterpiece. The Elling release is, in fact, called Dedicated to You.

We recently saw a stage production in Mumbai of Mughal-E-Azam, which was inspired by and unabashedly dedicated to the film production of the same name. This again is wholehearted praise and acknowledgement of a timeless masterpiece, much like that of Elling. Last year, American saxophonist Greg Banaszak had played a concert of Bird With Strings, the music of Charlie Parker. We had met Banaszak after the show and asked why he played the entire concert exactly as Parker had recorded it. Banaszak’s reply was simple and honest, “Why mess with perfection!”

I suppose in the fairly long history of jazz, there are musicians who have become pillars of the music and musical compositions which are pivotal in the development and growth of the art form. These are pieces of art and go beyond being ‘standards.’ It is marvellous for a young jazz musician to have this great material to use as his or her inspiration and development.

Duke Ellington had put it very eloquently, “If you want to know where you’re going, you’ve got to know where you’ve come from,” Amen to that.

Sunil Sampat is a jazz critic and Contributing Editor of Rolling Stone India. Write to Sunil at jazzwala@gmail.com



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