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Own Your Cover

Anthony Dean-Harris
anthony.deanharris[at]nextbop[dot]com / @retronius

Earlier this week, I attended a couple of shows of differing genres, both of which were sponsored in differing degrees by my radio station, KRTU San Antonio. The first was Anat Cohen and her spectacular rhythm section. The other was for KRTU's overnight indie rock-centric format. While I enjoyed both shows, I still attended both of them with the same set of ears, so while I knew to accept each genre for itself, I still found the second evening's headlining act a little lacking. Let me explain why.

The main act of my Monday night was a band devoted to covering well known rock albums in their entirety. They’re a technically skilled band, are steadily growing in popularity in San Antonio, and have a great deal of versatility to faithfully recreate the works of David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spider of Mars and Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. This evening brought about their only repeat album (before this evening, they’ve only recreated each album once), Radiohead’s OK Computer. I love Radiohead in its own right and it’s become obvious that the group has grown to such a stature that they're practically jazz standard composers now (I'm still waiting for a particularly adventurous piano trio to cover "Reckoner"). So needless to say, no matter the genre, if I'm hearing someone say they're going to cover Radiohead tunes, I've got a bit of an expectation.

Yet, it became quickly apparent that evening that this group, while talented, were faithfully recreating the album. Very faithfully, with little to no differentiation from the album. Now, I wasn't expecting Mehldau-quality covers that evening, but if I was going to hear the exact same songs, I'd just go home and open Winamp. I would at least not be standing in the cold (but I wouldn't have free Red Bull and this column, although the preceding act, Marcus Rubio and the Gospel Choir of Pillows, is an amazing group and play big concept indie rock like they’re San Antonio’s Sufjan Stevens). Even in a more rock-centric kind of thinking, this line of thinking isn't out of line. Sure, play the same songs, even in the same time signatures and with the same instruments, but I honestly shouldn't know every note of every solo in a live setting.

Conceptually, this is a good idea. A mass of people can get together and enjoy an album together. It's a shared experience. It's the same sort of rationale behind hip hop's Rock the Bells recent "Classics" direction. Recreating an album in its entirety, hearing it with a group of people who love it just as much as you might, is like comfort food. It's endearing, but it's not enriching.

This is one of those instances where I felt jazz has the upper hand. Much of the genre is covers. Yes, we know them as standards. We know them as entries in the Great American Songbook. Yet the genre overall is known resoundingly for playing songs we've all known before and having the performer add his or her own flair. It's a genre that always tries to make something new. It's holds the mindset of the TNT NBA Playoffs ads, "Go Big or Go Home."

Generally, jazz is a genre that tries to flex its muscles and do something new all the time. The infighting that occurs usually happens when that something new starts to spread out to conventions outside the form, but even when jazz is inspired by hip hop or rock, it never takes on those genres propensity for rigidity. The spirit of improvisation lives on. (Which is yet another reason why we probably shouldn't continue to have that fight but I'm trying to avoid that particular soapbox this week.)

Too often, I try to show what jazz can learn from other genres in order for it to rise in prominence and because I relish in the growth of the artform, but I still certainly love it for what it is and what it can do to influence the world of music around it. One of the most important lessons that jazz can teach other genres is in the approach to the cover. The best covers, in any genre, are not known for their steadfast allegience to original works but in the reinterpretation of those works with a good degree of reverence.

So while I may have enjoyed the couple of shows that capped off my week, I still found Anat Cohen did much more with the works of Oscar Peterson than Chris Madden and Chuck Kerr did with the works of Yorke, et al. The song should be the foundation, not the whole house. You don’t see a whole lot of folks living on the concrete slabs because they felt building walls on top are just plain gaudy.

Anthony Dean-Harris is a contributing writer for [African-American Reflections] and hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on [91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio]. More of his writing can be found at his blog, [In Retrospect] and you can also [follow him on Twitter].