Pygmalions of Pop: Reinterpreting Jazz and Rock Standards

October 1, 1989

Pygmalions of Pop: Reinterpreting Jazz and Rock Standards

The pop musician's practice of reinterpreting a tune previously recorded by another artist is common to both jazz and rock. Jazz musicians traditionally look to the vast reserves of the Tin Pan Alley repertoire or to jazz compositions in choosing material on which to improvise. Such material, itself usually based on a predetermined phrase structure, provides only the framework for improvisation; thus, the reinterpretation can incorporate alterations to any other aspect of the original. Rock musicians, on the other hand, find their source of reworkable material almost exclusively in once popular recordings of rock (or rock and roll) tunes. Historically, most of these remakes, referred to as cover versions, have been concocted by white musicians seeking to capitalize on the accomplishments of African-American artists,2 although in some instances this pattern has been reversed. Producing a cover, of course, necessitates a fresh performance of the source tune, but while the cover version may contrast with the original in terms of surface elements, a cover, unlike a jazz reinterpretation, ordinarily involves no essential changes in the song's phrase structure, harmonic scheme, or even melodic line.

Pop musicians have plumbed other repertoires, too, if less frequently, for material to reinterpret. These reinterpretations often involve not merely a shift in stylistic clichés, but also a leap from one form of musical language to another, as the performer imposes her or his musical grammar and rhetoric on material usually subject to a fundamentally different kind of treatment. For example, the music of certain western European composers of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries has occasionally surfaced in transfigured jazz and rock versions;3 in almost all such cases, the performer responds to this material as to any other, molding it to fit his or her style. (There exists at least one fascinating reversal of this phenomenon, Fats Waller's 1941 solo piano recording of one of his own songs, which he aptly titled "Honeysuckle Rose [à la Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Waller]." The recording, a tour de force, offers a grandiose and entertaining parody of the music of the composers cited in the title.)

A number of recordings document the self-evident observation that in popular music, the basic material, whether sophisticated and musically rich or uncomplicated and banal, has little aesthetic bearing on the newly fashioned performance. Compare various versions of George Gershwin's "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess—the late Gil Evans's serene arrangement for Miles Davis, George Benson's live Carnegie Hall recording (whose record label ascribes the lyrics to one H. Dubose[!]), or Billy Stewart's exotic 1966 showpiece for Chess Records; examine rock covers of jazz standards—the Happenings' "I Got Rhythm," or Steely Dan's "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" (a rock homage to Bubber Miley); analyze covers that reverse the usual pattern of white covering black, like the soul interpretations of Beatles' tunes by Atlantic artists Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Wilson Pickett; or contrast the many lives of "Perfidia," a straightforward melody distributed over the most uncomplicated of harmonic changes—I/vi/ii/V—in jazz and rock guises as diverse as those by Benny Goodman, The Four Aces, the Ventures, and Ellis Larkins (whose solo piano arrangement is as captivating as it is delicate). In all of these cases, the essence of the original material has been animated and musically redefined by the performer.

In two examples that illustrate this phenomenon, however—Janis Joplin's version of "Summertime," and Bobby McFerrin's performance of the early Lennon/McCartney tune "From Me To You"—it first appears as if the preexisting material, or at any rate, the style of reinterpretation to which that material is usually subjected, has indeed affected the nature of the subsequent recording. Joplin and McFerrin, both virtuosos, exhibit an athletic and vigorous style in which vocal pyrotechnics abound. Likewise, they explore similar kinds of arresting timbral possibilities, including percussive accents and extended consonants. On first hearing, Joplin's "Summertime" sounds surprisingly fresh, bristling with novel gestures and effects; the radical nature of her alterations suggests that, as many jazz musicians did with this same material, she improvised extensively. McFerrin's "From Me To You," on the other hand, in spite of its inherent whimsy and engaging humor, retains intact all the identifying musical characteristics of the original. In effect, he seems to produce a cover. But despite these preliminary impressions, a close analysis of the two performances reveals that Joplin's "Summertime," decked in the plumage of acid rock, can be construed as a cover, while McFerrin reinterprets "From Me To You" to create what is unmistakably jazz.

In its original context, "Summertime" is a lullaby whose essence lies in its exquisitely simple melodic line, centered on the pitches of the B minor triad. But although this line serves as the genesis for Joplin's interpretation, all that bears any resemblance in her version to Gershwin's composition is the mode, the phrase structure, and the general thrust of only a few of the harmonic progressions. (The arrangement is credited to Sam Andrew, Big Brother's lead guitarist.4) The initial impact made by this recording is created by three phenomena: the abrasive timbre and intensity of Joplin's voice, the aesthetic and musical distance at which this arrangement stands from the original, and the aura of a loose, improvisatory style in Joplin's singing. Each of these factors ought, in the abstract, to contribute to our sense of her performance as jazz. The first, originality in timbre, has always been a characteristic carefully cultivated by all jazz soloists, but especially by vocalists, in that it helps establish their musical identity. No one would confuse Bessie Smith with Billie Holiday, to choose an extreme comparison, and no one would confuse Joplin with either of them. She possesses a powerful and expressive instrument: the uncompromising rasp, the varied vibrato, the use of extended consonants appearing at the beginning or ends of phrases, and the occasional extreme nasality suggest the degree to which she has sought to fashion for herself a readily recognizable musical persona. Like the blues singers who are occasionally identified as the sources of her style, and like certain other singers who spare nothing vocally—Big Mama Thornton, on whom Joplin may have modeled herself to some extent, and James Brown, for example—Joplin connects directly with her audience through her vocal technique. But expressive though her timbre is, it is the way in which she uses her voice that distinguishes her from jazz vocalists. A jazz singer is generally sensitive to the lyrics, modulating her tone in order to complement the mood of the text. In the case of "Summertime," a lullaby, that mood is understated yet affirmative. But Joplin's gritty sound makes explicit the agony that for her is inherent in the act of singing itself, as if she must force the text, no matter what its mood, through the often brutal filter of her voice. Although Joplin can exude great tenderness, hers is hardly the voice to console a distressed infant; in Ellen Willis's eloquent phrase, Joplin did not sing songs "so much as struggle with them, assault them."5 To sing as she does is to induce physical pain,6 and by projecting that pain so effectively, Joplin creates a persona whose despair we intuitively empathize with, regardless of the import of the text. And indeed, this same timbre is applied to almost her entire oeuvre, with the exception of a few of her last recorded songs.

The second phenomenon (the aesthetic and musical distance of this arrangement from its source) also constitutes a common element of jazz reinterpretations, in which an utterly different style serves to invigorate the original material. Andrew's arrangement of "Summertime," however, overflows with the clichés of acid rock, including a simplified harmonic plan less subtle and delicately colored than Gershwin's, the use of multiple guitars, the exaggerated effects possible through electronic amplification, and, in the instrumental passages, sheer volume. In addition, the group articulates each beat with numbing regularity, thereby significantly reducing rhythmic interest in the accompaniment. These clichés inform much white rock of the late 60s, of course. But as elements of a performance based on a preexisting tune, they constitute simplistic substitutions, as distinct from seminal musical ideas that undergo genuine development, and they thus conform to procedures favored by those who produce cover versions.

Finally, the aura of an improvisatory approach to the material is ultimately illusory, since Joplin's singing depends on a degree of uniformity in gesture and style inconsistent with the ideal of improvisation. The pitch set, for example, is tightly restricted: Joplin adheres to the seven pitches of the G natural minor scale, adding only a lowered fifth (or raised fourth) degree occasionally, and bending only the seventh degree. Furthermore, she strays outside the octave from g' to g" just once, briefly venturing to the lower d' ("rise up singin'"); at two other places she crosses the octave border for even shorter brushes with the lower vol29id655', but these instances are so fleeting as to be barely noticeable. Her treatment of rhythm, too, like the pitch set, depends on predetermined formulas that she refers to repeatedly with only minor variations. Reflecting the rhythmic regularity of the instrumental accompaniment, Joplin stresses the downbeat in just under half the measures of her solo. (If the first full measure of her solo in vol29id655 meter is counted as 1 and the first full measure of the second stanza ["mornin's"] as la, this downbeat emphasis can be heard in mm. 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 15, 16, and in the second stanza, 7a, 8a, l0a, 11a, 15a.) The monotony of this pattern significantly reduces the sense of forward momentum essential to swing. Where she does not stress the downbeat, Joplin often delays it by one eighth note (mm. 3, 11, 13, la, 3a, 5a, 14a). Thus, even her use of syncopation becomes predictable; there are, in fact, few indications in her performance to suggest a jazz singer's intuitive understanding of the expressive potential of rhythm.

In addition, Joplin favors short, disconnected phrases of a consistent length—about four beats. In this preference she may be paying subtle, or perhaps unconscious, homage to the original melody, which is likewise cast in phrases of equal length. But by maintaining this pattern, Joplin relinquishes the freedom, so crucial to an improvising musician, to expand or contract ideas spontaneously. She also relies on only a handful of gestures to conclude all her phrases: a brief, decorative flourish articulated repeatedly, or a single pitch held over several beats, embellished by either a wide vibrato, an intensification of the gravelly tone in her voice, or an extended consonant. The most revealing aspect of Joplin's treatment of structure consists in her lifting entire licks from the first stanza for use in a slightly altered shape in the second: m. 5 ("jumpin' now") returns as m. 5a ("spread your wings"); a gesture in m. 6 (ex. 1a) surfaces in m. 6a (ex. 1b); mm. 8-9 (ex. 1c) return as mm. 8a-9a (ex. 1d)7; and the general profile of the melodic line of mm. 10-11 ("an' your ma's ssso good lookin', babe") reappears in mm. 2a-3a ("ah—you're gonna rise, rise up singin'"). Only once does Joplin engage in what might be considered genuine if minimal development. The rapid 16th-note ornamental passage at the end of m. 12 for the word "now" functions as the germ of an idea that becomes elongated, varied, and repeated over the course of mm. 12a and 13a with the repetition of the word "no." In each of these later iterations Joplin seems to be attempting to reach and sustain the dominant, vol29id655", that forms the highest point of the gesture, a goal she ultimately achieves and even flaunts through persistent repetition of the pitch in the concluding phrase of the stanza (m. 14a).8


Example 1. Gershwin, Porgy and Bess, "Summertime," arranged by Janis Joplin (as performed by Joplin on the album Cheap Thrills, Columbia KCS 9700)



Individually, each of these characteristics—the predetermined pitch set, rhythmic regularity, gesture and phrase repetition—contributes to a remarkable consistency in Joplin's musical language, and taken together, they represent a fixed vocabulary of ideas. Nevertheless, Joplin produces a unique and compelling version, given the further limitations inherent in the simplified harmonic plan of Sam Andrew's arrangement and the general confines of the acid rock style. But although Joplin's "Summertime" has little in common with the material or style of Gershwin's, paradoxically her interpretation works as a cover version, one shaped by the language of acid rock. Just as the fundamental aesthetic restriction of producing a cover rests in the requirement that the performer remain faithful to the source, so Joplin too remains faithful—not to Gershwin's "Summertime," but to the predetermined parameters of her chosen language. Her version is thus confined to the limitations of her style. One can understand what attracted Joplin to the piece, but her performance, rather than emulating a jazz virtuoso's approach to the material, succeeds instead on its own, unequivocally rock, terms.

If "Summertime" represents a choice that stands well apart from Joplin's usual repertoire and from the kind of musical material ordinarily reworked by acid rock musicians, "From Me To You" is less surprising as a choice for a jazz reinterpretation, at least in some respects. First recorded by the Beatles in March 1963, "From Me To You" was originally issued in the United States on the Vee-Jay label. Like many Lennon/McCartney tunes, it is cast in the 32-bar AABA structure typical of tunes that served as jazz standards in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s; even the structural profile of the bridge phrase (a four-bar phrase, restated up a whole step, but modified in its concluding gesture to fill out the second half of the bridge) is fairly representative of such tunes. By contrast, the A phrase shares with many rock songs of the 50s and 60s a stable harmonic vocabulary of four basic chords. However, instead of relying on the usual rock sequence for its coherence (I-vi-ii [or IV]-V), the harmonic plan of the A phrase of "From Me To You" involves a more complex and unusual ordering: I-vi-I-V-IVvol29id655-vi-I-V-I. Another harmonic detail worth noting occurs at the end of the coda, where only the first two bars of the A phrase are quoted by the instruments, leaving the listener abandoned in the middle of the phrase on the relative minor. The ambiguity inherent in an ending such as this, one that so definitively lacks a resolution to the tonic, raises the possibility that the response to the singer's offer of assistance ("just call on me") might be inconclusive. It is the kind of incisive musical detail, enriching and commenting on the text, that distinguishes much of the Beatles' music.

A transcription of McFerrin's rendition of "From Me To You" appears in example 2.9


Example 2. John Lennon and Paul McCartney, "From Me To You," arranged by Bobby McFerrin (as performed by McFerrin on the album Spontaneous Inventions, Bluenote BT 85110. Used by permission of Gil Music Corp. and Mr. McFerrin)





From it one can immediately appreciate the allegiance McFerrin maintains to the Beatles' melodic and harmonic scheme. Other features, however, clearly mark this performance as jazz. The most significant of these, evident in the recording right from the opening gesture, is its impeccable swing. McFerrin accurately gauges the precise moment at which to articulate individual pitches with respect to the beat—just a shade before it in order to sustain the forward momentum—and he manipulates other elements of rhythm (among them most particularly pace, syncopation, rhythmic patterns, and percussive effects used for accentuation) equally deftly. Even McFerrin's breathing, both inhaling and exhaling, functions as an integral part of the texture, often giving the opening gesture of a line its rhythmic impetus, and he occasionally appears to sing right through the exhale-inhale cycle (mm. 37, 47, 66). He also employs the unvoiced percussive sound of a kiss for a significant programmatic reason. (Notated as an ambiguous pitch, "vol29id655", it appears twice, once toward the end of each bridge phrase [mm. 30 and 62].) McFerrin demonstrates a keen sensitivity to the requirements of drama here, truncating the phrases that lead up to the kiss sounds by inserting an increasingly demonstrative series of breaths (mm. 26, 28, 29; and 58, 60, 61). This panting helps prepare us for those tantalizing little smooches, which in turn give way to the sudden yet graceful climax on the syllable "ooo" (mm. 32 and 64), the high point of the line, sung directly after the phrase "and keep you satisfied" (an important moment in McFerrin's interpretation, to which we will return). The sound of the kiss, coinciding with the smirk of satisfaction in McFerrin's voice (referred to in the transcription in m. 30 as "mm—"), animates the humor of this moment by incorporating the specific action that is merely described by the Beatles as a desire: "I've got lips that long to kiss you".

McFerrin's range extends to an enviable three octaves, rather as if the registral possibilities of the traditional black male vocal quartet, in its Gospel, Doo-Wop, or Motown incarnations, has been appropriated by just one singer. Like Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter, Art Tatum, and John Coltrane, to choose at random four jazz musicians with distinctive styles, McFerrin explores the limits of his range, moving rapidly and effortlessly from one extreme to the other. But he further sets himself the substantial technical and aesthetic challenge of singing a cappella: he must not only articulate the melody, but also evoke the presence of a rhythm section and outline the essential harmonic substructure throughout the song. In meeting this challenge, he reinvents for jazz Bach's approach to string instruments in the solo suites. (And in fact, McFerrin performs an arrangement of the Air from Bach's Orchestral Suite no. 3 in D [BWV 1068] that remains remarkably faithful to the composer's conception.)

Two considerations apparently govern McFerrin's choice of pitches. First, like Joplin, McFerrin confines his melodic invention to the pitches of the tonic scale, enriched only by the addition of bent pitches and blue notes. Second, in contrast to Joplin, he keeps the original melody of his source intact; even his solo for the first two phrases of the second chorus (mm. 40-66) retains an unambiguous identification with the original profile. (This more than any other characteristic of his performance is what tempts one to categorize his version as a rock cover instead of jazz.) But in the context of these two restrictions, McFerrin's exceptionally broad vocal range and ability to shift fluently from full voice to falsetto serve two important compositional purposes: to vary previously stated material (the bridge phrase in the second chorus [mm. 56-64] repeats in falsetto, one octave higher, the material of the first bridge phrase [mm. 24-32]), and to provide unexpected contrasts. The introduction, for example (mm. 1-8), is laced with delicately articulated leaps from full voice to falsetto, while the entire first chorus is sung in full voice, until the syllable "ooo" in the bridge necessitates the sudden jump of a major tenth in m. 32. Here, McFerrin capitalizes on a Beatles trademark, an effect they presumably borrowed from Little Richard (although they may also have heard it used by Liverpool Doo-Wop groups). McFerrin, however, alters the Beatles' gesture in a way that again, as in the case of the kiss, underscores his sensitivity to the text. The Beatles make only the subtlest reference to the syllable "ooo" in the bridge, where it follows the text "and keep you satisfied," although they also prolong the vowel of the words "do" and "true" in each A phrase to achieve the extended falsetto "ooo". But McFerrin merely skims over these words, choosing to isolate just the vowel prominently at the conclusion of the bridge phrase (m. 32). A discreet gesture in the Beatles' version thus becomes for McFerrin the musical focal point and climax of the bridge. Because he treats it essentially as a comment by the singer rather than an integral part of the text, the gesture as articulated by McFerrin is dramatically effective, for it draws our attention to, and seems to make a somewhat sardonic commentary on, the act of keeping someone satisfied—which is, after all, what this song is about.

Indeed, given the general playfulness of McFerrin's interpretation, in contrast to the Beatles' earnest pleading, one might read in McFerrin's refashioning of this gesture a touch of gentle satire, perhaps even a suggestion that the Beatles may have missed the point of their own song. For in some fashion or other, almost all rock deals with adolescent yearning and sexual satisfaction by focusing exclusively on the singer's needs rather than those of the person to whom the song is addressed. What McFerrin seems to be implying in "From Me To You," through his emphasis on the syllable "ooo" and the ironic tone of voice in which it is sung, is that this song, too, is about satisfying the singer, in spite of the overt message of the text. In this light, the singer's pretension to generosity ("just call on me") masks the real message of the song: the purpose of keeping you satisfied is to keep me satisfied.10

McFerrin's phrasing establishes this as a jazz performance in yet another dimension. For the Beatles' predictable phrases of eight beats, McFerrin substitutes lines of unequal lengths, breaking the flow of melody by breathing in unexpected places. Except for the two bridge phrases, he also treats each of the two choruses differently in this respect. For example, where two parallel sections in the first and second A phrases of the first chorus are similar, each lasting eleven beats (mm. 10-13 ["If there's anything. . ."] and 18-21 ["Like a love. . . "]), the analogous section in the second, improvised scat chorus (mm. 42-46), has been extended, continuing uninterrupted for sixteen half beats. Within this solo chorus, too, he is much less consistent from one A phrase to the next than in the texted chorus, suggesting that his principal aesthetic concerns in shaping this material are musical rather than textual. These irregular phrase lengths combine with the richly syncopated leaps from the deepest to the highest part of his range to keep us off balance, figuratively gasping for breath along with him.

By contrast, the bridge in the solo chorus retains its identity almost completely intact; the only alteration of significance, previously noted, is that McFerrin sings this second statement of the bridge in falsetto, one octave higher than the first. Because he preserves the line's shape so carefully, we focus on the quality of the new, lighter sound. At the same time, the sudden familiarity of the conjunct melody offers a respite from the virtuosic leaps of the previous solo phrases. But McFerrin cleverly alters the bridge in one telling detail—its climactic high point. In the first, full-voice statement, he surprises us by the sudden leap up a tenth to vol29id655'. To create a similar contrast within the context of the second statement's higher range and falsetto timbre, McFerrin shifts effortlessly to a high vol29id655'', whose tone he somehow manages to keep beautifully open and unforced. He then releases the tension by reestablishing his normal range soon after the climax, after he has been in falsetto voice more than eight and a half measures, longer than any other section of the piece. He has not yet finished his range hopping, however; just seven measures later, he offers a mirror image of the upward leap, dipping down to the bottom of his range with a low vol29id655 in m. 71. Having carefully nurtured in us a sensitivity to and respect for his agility, absolute control of pitch, and exceptional clarity of timbre at the highest extreme of his range, McFerrin now confounds us with this sudden maneuver in the opposite direction. He obviously relishes toying with his listeners' expectations, as does any skillful jazz musician.

For McFerrin, then, the performance of an existing tune serves as a catalyst both for his artistry and for an interpretation of the text, while for Joplin, the tune functions as a vehicle for her chosen style, the language of acid rock. McFerrin's "From Me To You" may exhibit a language consistent with his other work, and he may show restraint in his approach to the original material, but his interpretation crackles with rhythmic surprises, sharp unexpected turns of melody, and trenchant extra-musical effects. He makes music that projects elegance and sophistication of certain kinds of jazz.

Together, these two reinterpretations confirm the importance of our achieving a critical understanding of a jazz or popular musician's individual style. For in a larger context, as we seek to come to terms with the musical artifacts of popular culture and develop a theory (or theories) of popular music, the characteristics of an artist's musical language and identity, as manifested in the idiosyncracies of her or his performances, must continue to remain paramount in our deliberations.

1This article is a revised and expanded version of a paper presented at the annual meeting of the Sonneck Society in Danvers, Kentucky in April, 1988.

2If a rhythm-and-blues song showed signs of popularity in terms of its sales, it was a fairly simple matter for the song to be quickly rearranged for and performed by a white artist or group. The cover version could then be released in time to take commercial advantage of the already established reputation of the original version. There are dozens of examples of this slipstreaming from the 1950s alone, e.g. the Chords' 1954 hit "Sh-Boom," which achieved significantly greater sales in its cover version by the Crewcuts, a Canadian vocal quartet. (The names of the two groups are richly symbolic.) Artists like the Moonglows, Etta James, and Little Richard had songs covered respectively by the McGuire Sisters ("Sincerely"), Georgia Gibbs ("Tweedle Dee"), and Pat Boone ("Tutti Frutti").

3In jazz, examples range from several recordings of Dvorak's "Humoresque" and Rachmaninoff's vol29id655 Minor Prelude to a version of the Prelude to Bizet's Carmen by Jan Savitt and His Orchestra from 1941; in rock, the opening theme of the third movement (Adagio) of Rachmaninoff's Symphony no. 2, op. 27, turns up as the basis for Eric Carmen's "Never Gonna Fall in Love Again" (1976), while the anonymous Minuet in G in Bach's Notenbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach provides the material for the Toys's "A Lover's Concerto" (1965).

4Cheap Thrills, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Columbia KCS 9700.

5Ellen Willis, "Janis Joplin," in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock And Roll, ed., revised, and updated by Jim Miller (London, 1981), 277.

6One need only attempt it to understand just how much it hurts.

7It is worth recalling that a transcription of vocal music fixes only certain parameters of the actual sound, no matter how elaborate the notational system. An inventive singer is capable of an infinite variety of effects, among them rhythmic manipulations, quarter tones, bent pitches and other kinds of pitch shading, non-pitched sounds (for example, consonants, modulated vowels, and glottal stops), and shifts in vocal timbres (nasality, openness, breathiness, growls), that, although completely integrated into the melodic line, do not readily lend themselves to transcription into written symbols.

8Joplin's closing gesture, a descent to the raised third degree of the scale that comes almost as an afterthought, seems to function rather like the tierce de Picardie; in an acid rock context, we should perhaps think of it as a tierce de Haight-Ashbury.

9Spontaneous Inventions, Bluenote BT 85110. Arranged by Bobby McFerrin. Used by permission of Gil Music Corp. and Mr. McFerrin. This transcription includes notational symbols for falsetto (a circle above a note), for breathing (i for inhale, e for exhale), and for ambiguous pitches (an x in place of, or an arrow next to, a notehead), but not for the scat syllables McFerrin uses nor the percussive effects he achieves by the alternate thumps of left thumb and hand against his chest.

10At any rate, there is certainly ample precedent for satiric treatment by African-American singers of texts by white writers; one need only recall Fats Waller's savaging the texts of the Tin Pan Alley ditties he was given to record (e.g., "It's A Sin To Tell A Lie").

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