Jul 25 2016
Adapting pop songs for jazz ensemble is something of a tradition in the jazz universe. The typically elevated musicianship of a jazz ensemble, combined with the tangential strength in the area of improvisation are potent tools to apply to a pop song, to open it up in ways that the original composer never envisioned or anticipated. A classic example of this potential is John Coltrane’s adaptation of “My Favorite Things,” and how he honors the original melody by keeping its cheerful and festive tone but also launches into dramatic and free improvisations, infusing it with power and fury and a perspective as vast as any horizon line. More recently, pianist Robert Glasper’s mash-up of Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place” and Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” was a massively insightful vision of the interlocking pieces of melodies and the rhythms that surround them.
The Chris Schlarb ensemble Psychic Temple has stepped up and given a rendition that, arguably, should be included on any list of great jazz adaptations of pop songs. Brian Eno’s 1978 release “Music for Airports” was the first of his Ambient tetralogy, an outstanding album that showed how a well-crafted melody, breathed out slowly in a minimalism environment, could sound like the unfolding of entire universes. Triggering that effect is the opening track’s melody on piano and keys. For Psychic Temple, that is merely the starting gate.
It’s Kris Tiner’s trumpet that voices the melody of “Music For Airports 1/1,” whereas the keyboard roles are assigned to conjuring up a different kind of ambient music, something far more reminiscent of the Miles Davis jazz-rock fusion era… in particular his 1969 release In a Silent Way. But it doesn’t stay ambient for long, as the large ensemble continues to build the intensity through the layering of their sound while simultaneously intertwining melodic strands through the fabric of the harmonies. It creates a wave that only crests and breaks near the finale, when it returns to a peaceful state.
It leads into the second of the album’s three extended pieces… “Music For Bus Stops.” This one takes a straight-ahead jazz route, though with some changes in trajectory for some blues expressions and some funk grooves. This is not a sea change of sound, though, from its predecessor. That 1970s Miles jazz-rock electro-acoustic action is still in the mix, but now it gets focused through the lens of a modern jazz voice. The thesis statement of melody is rolled out in the opening, and it gets referenced throughout, but where the Eno cover was more about ensemble play, “Music For Bus Stops” follows a more familiar mode of development that gives plenty of space for soloists to step up to the front of the stage and be heard. And, with it, comes its own bird-of-a-feather comparison… Clark Terry’s Serenade to a Bus Seat. This 1957 recording was your basic straight-ahead bop session, and maybe it was just the suggestive album cover and title, but the music seemed to reflect the synchronized chaos of that mode of transportation. The Psychic Temple song “Music for Bus Stops” seems to have the same idea in mind, and when compared to controlled, focused, streamlined nature of airports, both in reality and as a sonic expression of the opening track, Psychic Temple seems to have encapsulated the spirit of the experiences.
The album’s third and final track is an alternate version of the opener. But this time around, the ensemble sticks closer to Eno’s original (and, for that matter, the title-track to Davis’s In a Silent Way), maintaining a tranquil presence from first note to last. It’s yet another inspired take on this seriously inspired album.
Your album personnel: Chris Schlarb (electric guitar), Kris Tiner (trumpet), Tabor Allen (drums), Philip Glenn (Hammond organ), Danny T. Levin (trombonium, euphonium, marching baritone, valve trombone), Paul Masvidal (electric guitar), Curt Oren (baritone sax), Cathlene Pineda (Wurlitzer, electric piano), Sheridan Riley (drums, percussion), David Tranchina (double bass) and Mike Watt (electric bass).
Released on Joyful Noise Recordings.
Listen to more album tracks at the artist’s Bandcamp page.
Jazz from the Long Beach, California scene.