One of my friends, who also happens to be a talented musician that studied jazz in college, told me that many popular bands are successful because their members don’t know anything about music in an academic or theoretical sense. They simply listen to music and attempt to create it without any formal education on the subject. My friend’s band— The Divide— is comprised of four college-age music majors, and they’re extra-hard on themselves when it comes to timing, pitch, key signatures and all that other musical jargon. Less knowledgable artists, on the other hand, can pump out a lo-fi mp3 of an off-tempo, out-of-tune track that Mozart would hate but your average-dude-with-an-internet-connection would love.
It’s almost a catch-22. To know how to play music, you have to study it. But if you study too much, then you’ll either over-think what you’re doing or distance yourself from the less-knowledgeable mass public. There’s a line somewhere in there that leads to the distinction between respected-yet-obscure-musician/professor and international superstar. Of course, I don’t fully buy in to my friend’s theory. There are tons of popular groups that have backgrounds in formal musical education and other examples scattered around all sorts of gray areas.
Still, it’s interesting when the extreme ends of the musical spectrum purposefully combine. Here are some examples of that phenomenon— the pretentious-ization of popular music. Specifically, jazz musicians covering popular songs. Because in my mind, jazz always means more pretentious (because that’s what everyone studies in school, and because I’m not talented enough to play the genre myself).
These examples may not be the best (Billy Joel, Nirvana and The Beatles are musical geniuses— perhaps naturally and in different ways, but geniuses nonetheless), but ohhhhhh well. They’re still really good covers.
The Bad Plus— “Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana Cover)”
Whenever somebody covers a Nirvana song or uses it for commercial purposes, there’s speculation about what Kurt Cobain would think about the use of his music. It’s impossible to guess, but it’s likely that he’d respect this cover more than some of the stuff out there (or maybe not, ughh). Either way, this is a well-done rendition of the song, and Bad Plus drummer Dave King is insanely talented.
Herbie Hancock— “Norwegian Wood (Beatles Cover)”
This Beatles cover is from Herbie Hancock’s 1996 album The New Standard, in which the musician covered several well-known songs from popular music. Hancock’s cover of Nirvana’s “All Apologies” is on that album, if jazzed-up grunge is your type of thing.
Rosemary Clooney and the Concord All Stars— “Just The Way You Are (Billy Joel Cover)”
Rosemary Clooney and an “All Star” ensemble of musicians from the Concord roster performed Billy Joel’s hit song during a 1981 festival in Holland. Billy Joel’s piano-based music is probably a style more easily adaptable to jazz, but still, these musicians did a great job.