Blue Pepper: A Critical Analysis of Covers

The Far East Suite, recorded in 1966, is a highlight of the latter part of Duke Ellington’s career, written using the… mid-east… as an inspiration (with the exception of “Ad Lib on Nippon”). I suppose Far East just sounded better. In any case, the album contains many highlights; I won’t get into them here, but will focus on “Blue Pepper (Far East of the Blues),” a song that has been loved (and covered) by many and also criticized for Duke’s use of the straightforward backbeat drum pattern behind his melody. It’s your call I suppose; it works for me.

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First, the original. Right out of the gate, the horns blast out the melody over hard-driving drums, a catchy descending line. At about 0:30, a horn blast panned right in your headphones brings in the B section, followed by a return to the A section. A sax solo starts around 1:00 and Duke’s piano is heard for the first time underneath. A relatively brief and straightforward blues sax solo, and as always Duke’s comping is great. Then at about 1:45, the theme returns while a trumpet plays some high notes in the left side of your headphones on top of that melody. The band plays through the head with the trumpet’s high notes on top through to the end of the song. No one would call this Duke’s most sophisticated-sounding song, and maybe the fact that “Single Petal of a Rose” also came from the same composer makes this tune all the more remarkable. And since it’s 2013 and we’ve all heard jazz solos over this type of backbeat (see ”Red Clay,” for example), let’s give the drummer some: Rufus Jones, these drums knock. Simple but effective.

Sam Yahel’s piano trio version of “Blue Pepper” is on his 2009 album Hometown, where Yahel is joined by Matt Penman on bass and Jochen Rückert on drums. The tune opens with the bass and drums grooving along nicely before Yahel’s piano plays the song’s theme at about 0:15 or 0:20. The melody on piano is much more understated than in the horn blasts on Ellington’s original, but grooves along nicely; the drums probably knock a little less on this version and seem less locked into their backbeat groove. I really like how a sustained piano note mimics the horns in what I’m calling the B section of the melody and then how Yahel reharmonizes the melody around 1:00 or so, giving it a slightly darker feel. Just after that reharmonized section, the song dissolves, leading into Yahel’s piano solo. The song keeps its forward motion, but the backbeat drums are gone for the piano solo until about 2:30, and even then only come back briefly. Yahel’s solo dissolves around 3:10 or so, leading to Penman’s bass solo. The whole band seems to move in and out of the groove they established for the song, falling back into it around 4:25 for a restatement of the tune’s head. After playing the head, Yahel plays a nice descending line and they end on a deep note from the piano. Completely re-shaped from the Ellington original, and with a very different feel from the version on Far East Suite, the Sam Yahel trio put together a great, original version of “Blue Pepper” for piano trio.

Medeski, Martin, and Wood also do a piano trio version of “Blue Pepper” that makes for a nice comparison with Yahel’s version above. I should note that MMW are not particularly set on the instrumentation they use for this tune; John Medeski will play the theme on piano, organ, or Wurlitzer, and the trio has also done the tune with horns. I’ll focus on a version that I’m partial to from October 1999 with Medeski on organ and other keyboards. This version starts with Billy Martin’s hard drums before Chris Wood and Medeski join in, Medeski playing the melody on organ with what I believe is a clav through a wah pedal underneath. The trio plays the head fairly straight, leading to Medeski’s solo starting at about 1:15. Here’s where things get a little further out from the “Blue Pepper” melody, as Medeski plays some string/flute sounds from (maybe?) a Mellotron with some distortion; Wood and Martin hold this strong groove throughout. At about 1:55, Medeski plays with the “Blue Pepper” melody before jumping back to the organ. The solo gets fairly busy-sounding around 3:00 and builds to some big chords around 3:20 or 3:30… great organ solo from Medeski in here, distinctive-sounding. Just before 4:00, he plays an ascending line from the “Blue Pepper” melody and then Martin gets in some open drumbreaks, similar to what he plays in their version of Hendrix’s “Fire.” At about 4:45, the theme returns on organ with the wah-ed out clav underneath and they play this to the end of the song. I know that MMW can play together as a piano trio, but I don’t know who else could take on “Blue Pepper” like this.

Personally, I’m digging on this version of “Blue Pepper” from MMW, so I’ll toss in another one from them here. This is a studio version from the compilation album Red Hot + Indigo with some trippy delay effects on the organ and horns and well worth a listen if the live version above did anything for you.

Graham Reynolds’ Golden Arm Trio does a version of “Blue Pepper” on their album Duke! Three Portraits of Ellington that also does some rearranging of the original, taking it in different directions. This version starts with an unaccompanied soprano sax that puts me in the mind of the clarinet-led opening of “Rhapsody in Blue.” About 10 seconds in, the horns and drums join. The “Blue Pepper” melody appears at about 0:45 from several horns. This is called the Golden Arm Trio, but there are clearly more than three people involved here – Graham Reynolds is on piano, Steve Bernal on bass, and Jeremy Bruch on drums. Beyond that, the album features Paul Klemperer and Thad Scott on saxophones and Freddie Mendoza and Jerome Smith on trombones. At about 1:10, a tambourine joins in and we’re grooving along really nicely with some piano chords underneath it all. A sax solo starts just after 1:30 over some cool rhythmic motifs from the horns, piano, and drums. Trombone around 2:00 as the accompaniment underneath continues to push and evolve. A brief opening spotlights the drums before the melody returns at 2:45 or so… The piano’s presence is more up-front the second time through the head; the tambourine returns around 3:15 and the groove picks up… around 3:30, the soprano sax is playing way up high, on top of the rest of the band, similar to the Ellington original on Far East Suite. Wow, this is a great, original version with a very cool arrangement. Reynolds apparently does a lot of composing and arranging for film, and it shows in this arrangement of “Blue Pepper.” Very recommended.

Anthony Brown’s Asian American Orchestra has taken on not just “Blue Pepper,” but the entirety of The Far East Suite. With Brown leading the orchestra from the drum chair, he is joined by a band that includes Asian instruments in addition to the more traditional Western instruments heard in jazz. This version of “Blue Pepper” starts with an exotic sounding groove, I’m not sure of the instrumentation here. A horn joins in, followed by several more instruments; I wish I could provide some more detail on what’s playing, but you’ll just have to listen I suppose… An interesting, spooky-sounding vamp runs until about 1:20 when the “Blue Pepper” melody is played on top of this. A groove picks up at about 2:00 when the horns play the B section of the melody, but this never falls into the backbeat-driven drums from Ellington’s original. In fact, the drums drop out at about 2:25 for a trumpet solo before they rejoin tentatively. This section is trumpet, piano, bass, and drums, a completely different feel from both the start of this version and from the Ellington original, with a walking bassline and relaxed drumming from Brown. Starting around 3:30, a bit of chaos starts to leak in around the edges as some of the other horns join in… the melody returns at about 4:20 as the trumpet plays a high melody line very reminiscent here of the original on Ellington’s Far East Suite, but the trumpet here is shortly joined by some other instruments and the melody is a bit more in the background rather than being blasted out by the horns. Wow… a completely different take on “Blue Pepper,” with different instrumentation and arrangement, no backbeat drums, and a walking bassline for the trumpet solo. It’s a cover, but a complete original.

The “Blue Pepper” melody has been used for groove-heavy covers by MMW, for a piano trio version by Sam Yahel, something like film music by Graham Reynolds, and for a complete re-working by Anthony Brown’s Asian American Orchestra. Almost 50 years after this tune first appeared on Far East Suite, it’s clear that it hasn’t stopped evolving in today’s musicians’ hands. As I listen to these cover versions, I’m amazed at how original these are – yes, they’re a re-working of Ellington’s “Blue Pepper,” but in each one the performers’ voice is clear. Where will this tune go next?

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