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Smells Like Teen Spirit: A Critical Analysis of Covers

Ben Gray
Staff Writer

Bringing outside influences into jazz and bringing jazz to other genres has been going on probably since there was a concept of jazz as a genre. Witness hip-hop and electronic producers sampling from jazz records and Robert Glasper playing J Dilla tunes. Witness David Bowie backed by a group of incredible jazz musicians, DJ Logic joining Medeski, Martin, and Wood, Miles Davis bringing a rock aesthetic to his ‘70’s bands, John Coltrane playing "My Favorite Things", and Jason Moran playing a theme from Ravel. Witness, as in this column, jazz artists covering Nirvana’s "Smells Like Teen Spirit".

From 1991, with no need for introduction:

Maybe not the most obvious choice for a jazz cover, but a great song with a strong melody and arrangement. So, whether an obvious choice or not, about a decade after its initial release, jazz artists started taking on "Smells Like Teen Spirit". The Charlie Hunter Quartet, featuring Hunter on 8-string guitar, John Ellis on sax, Josh Roseman on trombone, and Johnny Vidacovich on drums, played this tune in March of 2002 at a show in Chicago. This opens with a quick introduction to the tune’s chord changes before Roseman’s trombone plays the melody of the verse over a relaxed groove from Hunter and Vidacovich. Just after 1:00, they go into the first chorus and the volume of the drums increases a bit, pushing this forward. Nice bassline coming out of the chorus here. Ellis’ sax comes in after the chorus for a solo, touching occasionally on the tune’s melody but improvising over the changes for the most part. It’s a solid sax solo, backed nicely by Hunter and Vidacovich without anyone doing anything particularly flashy. Shortly after 3:00, Hunter’s comping takes on a sort of Latin feel that they stick with for a bit. Breakdown at about 4:00, then into the chorus with Ellis still taking the melody. At 4:30 or so, Roseman starts a trombone solo. Hunter’s guitar chords come in behind this at about 5:00, again with a Latin feel. A bit of a breakdown just after 6:00, after which Hunter plays a rhythmic, funky guitar line behind the trombone. The drums drop out at 8:00, with this guitar line and Hunter’s bassline holding down the rhythm as the trombone solo ends. Hunter then moves into an unaccompanied solo, coming back to the "Teen Spirit" melody at about 9:40. The band is introduced at about 10:00 and the drums come back in behind Hunter, fairly minimally at first. At 11:15, they come back to the Latin feel that has been a part of this version for most of the tune, though there’s a bit of a rhythmic stumble at first. At 11:45 they settle on more of a swing feel, and Roseman comes back to play the melody. They end this version with Hunter playing the bassline. Nothing wrong here, mostly an easy-going groove relying on Vidacovich’s drums as the foundation to back some fine if mostly unremarkable soloing. Hunter’s simultaneous bass and guitar playing is always an impressive feat, and some of his basslines in particular on this are pretty solid. A final note on this one: despite playing the song live here, Hunter has not included "Teen Spirit" on any of his albums that I’m aware of, although his Bing, Bing, Bing! album does include his cover of Nirvana’s "Come As You Are".

The Bad Plus’ 2003 album These Are The Vistas included their version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit". This opens with Ethan Iverson’s piano playing the bass part briefly before Reid Anderson and Dave King join in. Iverson plays a slightly spookier version of the two note motif that is played on guitar in Nirvana’s version before moving into the verse. This version is really churning along around 1:10 or so as they get to the first chorus, with Iverson’s piano adding harmony to the lyric line and Dave King’s drums really killing behind this. Nice bass part just before 2:00 as they move into a piano solo that is really a fantastic group improvisation - check out Dave King at about 2:20 and really throughout as he both supports the piano and pushes the song forward. Iverson digs in at about 3:00 and moves up to the upper register of the piano while playing the melody line underneath. He closes the piano solo by raking the strings before moving back into the next verse. Again, just before 4:00 as they move into the chorus the group comes together something lovely and telepathic in a way that honors the original melody while also very much adding their own flavor to this. Out with a lot of sustain on the piano and one more quick run through the melody. Holy crap. This might look like a gimmick on paper, especially given that the Bad Plus were well known for covering tunes from well outside of the jazz canon around this time, but that is not at all the case here - it’s clear that the trio is fully inhabiting this tune and treating it as a great song worthy of revisiting. Great playing that very much stands up on its own merits and makes you appreciate the original from a different angle.

Also in 2003, drummer Don Peretz released Foremen with his quartet including Christof Knoche on sax, Russ Johnson on trumpet, and Dave Ambrosio on bass. Their version of "Teen Spirit" starts with a brooding feel, with the bassline reduced to single notes rather than the bouncier feel on Nirvana’s version. The trumpet comes in with the two-note motif from the guitar on the original, and then the sax takes the melody of the verse starting around 0:40, building up to the chorus that is played by both the trumpet and sax over the still brooding drums and bass. They break it way down after the chorus at about 1:40, then that two-note motif comes back to lead them into the next verse, played here on trumpet. Second chorus at about 2:30, again played in unison by the trumpet and sax, followed by an improvisation that starts at about 3:00 with a vaguely middle-eastern feel. The bass goes to a single repeated note underneath the trumpet and sax. Just before 4:00, then, the sax comes back to that two-note motif and the band slowly moves back toward the "Teen Spirit" melody. The drums pick up a bit underneath this and the bassline now has a bouncier feel more akin to the Nirvana original and then they really hit the gas at about 5:10 in the final chorus, with the drums picking up and the band moving along something lovely here. This version goes mostly for that brooding feel, but the brief improvisation leading into the final driving chorus is the big payoff on this. The subtle change in the bassline makes a big difference in the overall feel of this version that is well worth checking for.

In 2005, pianist Leszek Mozdzer released The Time, where his trio was filled out by bassist Lars Danielsson and percussionist Zohar Fresco. This version starts with some light, pretty piano playing that doesn’t immediately announce that this is the Nirvana tune. Some bowed bass at first, and then just after 0:30 the bass first plays the "Teen Spirit" changes. The Nirvana melody doesn’t really start until about 1:00. They’re still in a very relaxed, pretty mode here, though there’s some dissonance from the piano coming out of the first chorus. Danielsson’s bass takes the melodic lead for the second verse and sounds good here. The piano returns to the lead at about 3:40 and the percussion picks up some momentum behind the piano solo here. The opening of the solo here in particular is very nice, and the percussion supports. They come out of the piano solo and back into the chorus with the light, pretty feel from the tune’s opening. The playing on this is solid throughout, and there’s nothing wrong with this, but to my ears the overall feel is a little tentative and light for this tune.

Pianist Marcus Johnson’s 2010 This is How I Rock has his version of "Teen Spirit". This opens with some pretty, light piano playing over a cymbal wash. Some guitar comes in behind this, and then at about 0:45 light drums and an electric piano. At 1:15, they move into the chorus and the guitar goes into distorted rock mode, for better or worse. Shortly after 2:00, they’re back into the laid-back loungy feel for the verse with the acoustic piano playing the melody over some electric piano chords and guitar accents. More display of how Marcus Johnson rocks during the chorus here, and then at 3:30 they move into a brief guitar solo. At 4:00, Johnson takes a piano solo over a pretty solid groove here with the "Teen Spirit" chords. They build back up to the chorus at about 5:15 and shortly afterward bring it to a close. Solid playing all around; your mileage on the overall feel of this one might vary.

Also in 2010, Eric Lewis released RockJazz, Vol. 1 under the name ELEW. Along with interpretations of other rock tunes, this includes his solo piano version of "Teen Spirit". First: I can’t not mention the video here. Let’s just say it’s an interesting aesthetic choice and that it’s difficult for the video not to have an effect on how one hears the music. Leave it at that. As for the music: the arrangement is faithful to Nirvana’s original, and the heavy left hand in particular seems to be a signifier that this is, you know, a rock song. The melody is played straight and the sustain pedal is used liberally. as he moves through the verses and choruses. There’s a nice build underneath the "hello, how low" part moving into the chorus. A brief improvisation starts around 3:10 or so, building to some dissonance at about 3:30 before he moves back into the chorus. At about 4:30 he brings this to a close and plays a brief and interesting ending. It’s very faithful to the Nirvana arrangement and basically plays it straight with the exception of the bit of improvisation before the final chorus and ending.

Robert Glasper’s 2012 Black Radio included his band’s version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit", featuring Lalah Hathaway on vocals (Glasper has also played this live in a few different settings). This starts with some spacy vocal samples as the drums take shape. Along with a bit of added percussion, some minimal piano comes in, followed by Casey Benjamin’s vocoder-ed vocals. Still in this minimal mode, they move into the first chorus at about 1:15. Still very spacy and minimal but the bass comes in and provides a more solid foundation during the second verse starting around 2:00. Gaining momentum around 2:30 while they go into the second chorus. At 3:15 or so, they head into the third verse in this same spacy way, but just before 4:00, things pick up a bit with the drums hitting harder during the chorus here. Glasper’s piano chords throughout this have a very chilled out feel, but get a little more insistent around 5:00 while Casey Benjamin’s spacy delays freak out. Back into very chilled out mode around 5:30 as Lalah Hathaway’s wordless vocals come in here. It’s very pretty, ambient stuff and it’s squarely in the Robert Glasper Experiment’s wheelhouse; the connection to "Teen Spirit", though is not so obvious to this listener. Credit the band for taking this tune in a completely new direction, re-imagining it, and very much giving it their own stamp. Although Casey Benjamin sings all of the vocals from Nirvana’s original, though, the band here basically does away with any of the original’s arrangement. On its own terms, this is a nice Glasper Experiment jam, but this isn’t likely to be anyone’s go-to if they’re thinking of the momentum of Nirvana’s original.

Ben Williams’ Coming of Age album from 2015 included his solo bass version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit". He opens this by introducing the tune’s recognizable bassline and chord progression, with some flourishes on top. Moving into the verse, Williams keeps the bassline going underneath while playing the melody on top simultaneously. At just after 1:00, he moves into the first chorus, adding some rhythmic pop. A little harmonic overtone at about 1:30, then into the next verse. Next chorus at 2:15 or so, again with some rhythmic emphasis and Williams digging into the melody. At 3:00, he starts to close out this impressive version and brings it back down. Williams’ impressive bass tone shines through on this, and although it’s not super-heavy on improvisation, he makes this version his own and gives a bass clinic here by playing multiple parts simultaneously and adding a bit to the original’s melody. Impressive.

On its face "Smells Like Teen Spirit" seems, by virtue of its being a Nirvana original, to be an odd choice for a jazz artist to take on. Considering the many successful jazz versions of Radiohead, The Beatles, David Bowie, and other rock artists, though, why not? While "Smells Like Teen Spirit", has been fertile ground for jazz artists in the 25 years since its release, it seems unlikely that this will enter the jazz canon. But as the versions here can attest, there’s plenty of meat on this tune’s bones.

Ben Gray is a listener with a little bit of time now and then.