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Hey Joe: A Critical Analysis of Covers

Ben Gray
Contributing Writer
bengray417@gmail.com

This one probably doesn’t need much of an introduction. I chose the live version below not just because Jimi Hendrix sounds great on it, but also because of the drummer’s shirt and because some of the shots of the audience are priceless. “Hey Joe” showed up on Hendrix’s 1966 The Jimi Hendrix Experience, though Wikipedia tells us that the song was registered for copyright in 1962 by one Billy Roberts and was recorded over the next few years by lots of rock bands. I think it’s fair to say that in practical terms, “Hey Joe” has become a Hendrix song. (Don’t worry, Billy Roberts - “All Along The Watchtower” was a Bob Dylan song, and Hendrix made it his own.)

The “Hey Joe” chord progression is based on the cycle of fifths, a term that will be familiar to anyone who has studied a bit of music. That seems to have appealed to a number of jazz musicians, resulting in some really great piano-led recordings of the tune. The first I’ll mention is from Medeski, Martin, and Wood. The trio has done this tune many times, often with guest guitarists (Marc Ribot, Charlie Hunter), but the version that really does it for me is from their 2000 live acoustic album Tonic, recorded at the club of the same name in 1999. They take the tune at a slow tempo, giving it a sensitive reading. John Medeski opens with some sustained piano chords, playing the “Hey Joe” melody in a high register. After a solo piano intro, Chris Wood and Billy Martin join around 0:55, continuing in this mood with some brushed snare. I love how Medeski plays with space throughout this version… nice piano riff just before 2:00 or so and I’ve always thought Medeski’s phrasing around 2:20 should be the definition for “tickling the ivories,” something about his touch there. Ah… that deep note around 2:50 gets me every time. And Chris Wood is doing his thing on the bass in here, too, filling in the space perfectly - check him out around 3:15 or so, among other highlights in here. Around 4:15, this version starts to wind down and dissolve away. Beautiful.

Brad Mehldau’s trio included their version of “Hey Joe” on their 2012 album Where Do You Start? Mehldau starts this version out solo before Jeff Ballard (drums) and Larry Grenadier (bass) join around 0:20. They take this at a slightly faster tempo than the MMW version above, and the drums and bass both emphasize the groove a little more. After running through the “Hey Joe” verses, this opens up for a bass solo from Larry Grenadier around 1:40 with some piano punctuation and great popping snares from Jeff Ballard. Grenadier hits on a great riff around 2:40 in an all-around fantastic solo. Mehldau returns around 3:00 for a solo of his own. It’s a solo that immediately says it’s from Mehldau, but he seems much more content to let the groove ride along here than in some of his earlier work where his solos were a little busier. Around 4:00 or so, the piano returns to the “Hey Joe” verses, more bombastic than at the start of this version (especially around 5:00 or so!). At about 5:10, Mehldau plays the “Hey Joe” riff, and he and Grenadier run through that a few more times, until around 6:00, at which point they bring this to a close. This is an excellent version of the tune, a really strong jam as can be expected from this always-exciting trio.

The final version of “Hey Joe” that I’ll mention here is from Vijay Iyer, retitled “Because of Guns.” This was included on his 2003 album Blood Sutra with Stephan Crump on bass, Rudresh Mahanthappa on sax, and Tyshawn Sorey on drums. As in the two versions above, Iyer starts this version off with a strong piano solo introduction. Something about this tune - the solo piano introductions from John Medeski, Brad Mehldau, and Vijay Iyer all let these pianists’ voices shine, really highlighting their individual styles and approaches to the tune. Just after 1:00, Crump’s bass joins in and the piano and bass play in duet until about 1:45 when Sorey’s drums join. Sorey’s beat in this is fantastic, holding this down with Crump while Iyer takes flight on top of their rock-solid foundation. And Iyer is indeed taking flight throughout this, building something incredible here. I can’t add much to this in writing, but you’ll want to give this a good and loud listen in a nice pair of headphones if you’re anything like me. Mahanthappa joins in the fun at about 4:00 after a fantastic piano solo… tough act to follow, but Mahanthappa solos more than ably, carrying the momentum that the group has built over the past few minutes and continuing to build on that (!). At around 5:15, Iyer and Mahanthappa play a new, composed part in unison while Iyer’s left hand stays locked in with the drums and bass and somehow even plays the “Hey Joe” riff underneath all of this complicated unison work with the sax. Yikes. At about 7:00, over the “Hey Joe” riff, Mahanthappa and Iyer start to trade some insane phrases back and forth until the song fades. The build-up in this version, starting with Iyer’s solo piano and leading to this sax-piano-bass-drums madness at the end is fantastic. As good as any isolated section of this is, it really calls for a dedicated listen to follow the flow of the group here.

C-G-D-A-E-B-F#-C#-G#-D#-A#-F-C-... “Hey Joe” has provided a perfect platform for these jazz improvisations, with all three of these versions building from sensitive solo piano introductions to intense group interplay. The many rock covers had a huge effect on the way this tune is played today, but the versions from MMW, the Mehldau trio, and the Iyer quartet are amazing, original interpretations of this tune. Iyer in particular has added a whole new and completely original layer to the end of the song. More than fifty years after this tune was played as a garage-rock song, it has inspired these great jazz versions. Keep listening.

Ben Gray is a listener with a lot of ideas about this music around in his head.