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Classic rock, especially from the Woodstock era, has segued from middle age to oldies status during the 21st Century. Four recent jazz projects spotlight the outsized influence of the venerable sub-genre, with covers of seminal material by a blues-based supergroup, folk-rock icons, the ultimate guitar hero and the original jam band.
On Whole Lotta Love — The Music of Led Zeppelin (Chesky), drummer Obed Calvaire, saxophonist Bob Franceschini, pianist Kevin Hays and bassist Orlando le Fleming offer down-tempo acoustic instrumental takes — all impressively recorded in one day — of the British quartet’s material, removing bombast while retaining the rhythmic elasticity of guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham.
Franceschini, a longtime member of guitarist Mike Stern’s group, largely takes on the vocal melodies of Robert Plant, while Hays handles the chording and soloing of Page. On the title track, those chords include a reference to the Miles Davis standard “So What” after Le Fleming states the Zep tune’s familiar guitar riff. Staples like “Dazed and Confused” and “Immigrant Song” go from nearly rote to unrecognizable, respectively, but it’s the more obscure album tracks (the Calvaire-downshifted “In My Time of Dying” and “Custard Pie”; reimagined ballads “Ten Years Gone” and “The Battle of Evermore”; and the closing Hays showcase “No Quarter”) that shine.
If Zeppelin’s jazz influences were mostly rhythmic, expressed through odd time signatures, three other recent tribute releases salute classic rock artists whose relationships to jazz were more chordal and harmonic.
California vocalist Judy Wexler’s Back to the Garden (Jewel City Jazz) takes its name from a lyric within Joni Mitchell’s anthemic composition “Woodstock.” Some of its hits from that era — by Bob Dylan, Judy Collins and Stephen Stills — feature strings and venture toward an awkward mix of chamber jazz and cabaret. But Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” Paul Simon’s “American Tune” and Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” are highlights, thanks largely to the singer’s reverent vocal deliveries and updated arrangements by Josh Nelson and her gifted longtime pianist Jeff Colella.
On 2B3’s Jimi (self-released), Denver-based keyboardist Jeff Jenkins, guitarist Mike Abbott and drummer Mike Marlier successfully blend surprising originality into the oeuvre of guitarist Jimi Hendrix in an instrumental Hammond organ trio format. The arrangements by Abbott and Jenkins result in a staggered “Purple Haze,” acidic “Manic Depression,” shuffling “Foxey Lady,” and even a couple originals (the bluesy “Etched in Stone” and atmospheric title track) that effectively capture the project’s spirit. Throughout, Jenkins provides the glue with textures and left-hand bass lines; Abbott effectively channels the late guitarist’s chordal and soloing genius; and Marlier powerfully mixes the jazz-influenced playing of the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Mitch Mitchell with the thump of later Band of Gypsys drummer Buddy Miles.
All of which exemplifies why trumpeter Davis wanted to record with Hendrix, and makes Jimi comparable to a similarly explorative 1995 tribute release, Purple Haze, by organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, guitarist John Abercrombie and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith.
Likewise, Detroit-based saxophonist Dave McMurray’s Grateful Deadication (Blue Note) isn’t the first jazz nod to the Grateful Dead, following multiple releases over the past quarter-century by Jazz Is Dead, an all-star outfit with former members of Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
McMurray’s tenor sax mimics the vocals on Dead singalong classics like “Fire on the Mountain” and “Eyes of the World,” but a couple tracks feature standout guest vocal performances. Singer Bettye LaVette torches the slow-burning Jerry Garcia-Robert Hunter composition “Loser,” aided by founding Dead guest guitarist Bob Weir, and Herschel Boone’s vocals on that songwriting duo’s “Touch of Grey” steer the Dead’s late-career pop hit into jazzy R&B territory. - Bill Meredith