Gingerbread Boy: A Critical Analysis of Covers

“Gingerbread Boy” is a tune written by saxophone player Jimmy Heath that was played fairly heavily following its first appearance, then underwent some big changes up to the present day. But before we get to that, the beginning – the first appearance of this song was in 1964 on Jimmy Heath’s On The Trail album, where Heath was joined by Wynton Kelly on piano, Kenny Burrell on guitar, Paul Chambers on bass, and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums.

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The tune starts with Jimmy Heath’s sax playing the melody in unison with Burrell’s guitar; the guitar also adds some rhythmic chords in between the melody’s phrases. Kelly’s piano and Chamber’s bass play together in the opening of the tune here generally, though Kelly also plays some nice chords in here as well. At about 0:35, the tune opens up for a guitar solo from Burrell. Heath’s drums are excellent, pushing this solo along. Kelly plays some of the chords from the tune’s head at about 1:35 behind the guitar solo and the solo comes to a close shortly after that, leading to a sax solo from Jimmy Heath. It’s an excellent solo; I really like what he’s doing around 2:40 or so. Kelly takes a piano solo starting around 3:10 over a great walking bassline from Paul Chambers. Kelly is in his element and plays a very strong solo here; Burrell adds just a few chords toward the end, but it’s mostly drums, bass, and piano here. After the piano solo, the band returns to the tune’s head. Kelly improvises a bit at the end of the tune while the rest of the band vamps on the rhythmic chords from the tune’s head… this unfortunately fades out while the band is still vamping.

In 1964, the same year that On The Trail was released, Milt Jackson released Jazz ‘n Samba, including his version of “Gingerbread Boy” (this falls squarely in the jazz portion of the album, with the second half devoted to samba). Jackson on vibes was joined by Jimmy Heath on sax, Tommy Flanagan on piano, Richard Davis on bass, and Connie Kay on drums. This version starts out sounding quite similar to the original version from On The Trail, with the exception that the rhythmic chords that were supplied by Kenny Burrell’s guitar on On The Trail come from Flanagan’s piano and Jackson’s vibes here. After playing through the head, the tune opens up for a sax solo from Heath at about 0:35. Heath takes a great but brief solo, leading to a piano solo that starts around 1:30. It’s an excellent solo, similar in some ways to Wynton Kelly’s approach to the tune on the original version above. At about 2:20, the band plays the rhythmic chords from the head, then opens up to what sounds at first like it will be a vibes solo from Jackson. It is in fact Jackson’s solo, but there’s a little bit of a false start to the solo as the band plays those rhythmic chords one more time before the tune opens up for a proper solo from Jackson. He takes a great solo, ending with a nice ringing chord around 3:10 as the band returns to the head. They add a very cool vamp at the end of this after playing through the head; as on the original version the vamp unfortunately fades out. This version is very similar in structure to the original take on the tune, but the substitution of Jackson’s vibes for Kenny Burrell’s guitar changes the overall feel of the tune.

Jimmy Heath clearly liked “Gingerbread Boy,” as it was recorded with yet another group featuring Heath on sax in 1964, this time for the album that would become Donald Byrd’s Mustang! (though this wasn’t included when the album was originally issued). The group here is Donald Byrd on trumpet, Heath on sax, McCoy Tyner on piano, Walter Booker on bass, and Joe Chambers on drums. This version has a big, brassy sound with Byrd and Heath playing the tune’s melody in unison, punctuated by Tyner’s piano chords. Tyner and Booker play the bassline in unison underneath the melody, something that Kelly did a bit on On The Trail. This version opens up to a sax solo from Heath at about 0:35 after the head. This version really pops, with a muscular rhythm section and a big sound from Byrd and Heath. Byrd’s trumpet also punctuates Heath’s solo, the first time at about 1:00 or 1:05. Heath takes a longer solo than on the versions above, really stretching this out for the first time. They’re in a nice groove at around 2:15, with Chambers’ snare pops on the four… Chambers and Tyner lock up nicely behind the solo at about 2:45 and Heath brings his solo to a close just before 3:00, handing the tune over to Byrd for a trumpet solo. Tyner and Heath play the rhythmic chords behind Byrd’s solo at about 3:20, near the start of the solo. Byrd takes an excellent melodic solo here… Chambers really digs into this at about 4:45 as Byrd’s solo continues. The trumpet solo comes to a close around 5:40, leading to a piano solo from McCoy Tyner. Where the Wynton Kelly and Tommy Flanagan solos were in a similar vein, Tyner’s sound on the piano is very distinctive, and he takes a muscular solo punctuated by the brass behind him. Lots of strong chords and great support from Joe Chambers’ drums. Tyner takes an excellent solo, though it loses a bit of steam toward the end. At about 8:00, the band returns to the “Gingerbread Boy” head and play through it with the same strong, brassy sound from the opening. After playing through the head, Donald Byrd improvises over the fade-out vamp at the end; Heath joins in the improvisation a bit at the very end. This version of “Gingerbread Boy” has a much punchier feel than the two versions of the tune above. Great playing from everyone involved in this on a very much recommended version of the tune.

Three years after the versions above, Miles Davis included “Gingerbread Boy” on his 1967 album Miles Smiles. The lineup on this album is the same as on Davis’ ESP; Davis on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on sax, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. The tune here is much faster than on the three versions above, with Tony Williams’ drums crashing furiously behind the head. The band takes a very muscular approach to the tune, something in common with the approach of Donald Byrd’s group. The trumpet and sax play the melody in unison here, and there is a slight addition to the melody here that substitutes for the rhythmic chords from Burrell’s guitar in the original version of this tune. Hancock’s piano almost completely lays out during the opening, with just a few almost inaudible notes. At about 0:25, the tune opens up for a trumpet solo. Hancock still lays out, so it’s just Davis, Carter, and Williams. Ah… this could go on for hours and I’d be more than happy with that… such an incredible groove here, Tony Williams is killing it and no one plays trumpet like this (though it’s the prototype for some of Wynton Marsalis’ 1980s stuff with this same rhythm section). At about 2:35, Shorter takes a sax solo, again unaccompanied by the piano. Williams is still absolutely on fire here… Shorter’s solo is great, though he sounds perhaps a bit less comfortable here than Davis did before him. Carter’s bass playing behind these solos is excellent… listen to the slides he plays around 4:10 behind Shorter’s solo (he plays some similar things during Davis’ solo as well)… At about 4:30, Hancock takes a piano solo using a single hand to play a melodic line, with no chordal accompaniment. An odd choice, but it works well here. At about 6:25, Hancock’s piano solo comes to a close and the band returns to the head. They play through the head this time with spaces left for Williams’ drumming. Then at around 7:10, Williams and Carter take a drum and bass duet for the next 20 seconds or so. This version ends strangely with Miles telling Teo (Macero) to “play that”. The way this band plays the head and Miles’ trumpet solo are both as good as it gets; the drum and bass duet at the end is also something that they could have expanded on (something about this tune’s ending keeps making me want to hear more). The solos from Shorter and Hancock are both great, though probably not what I would turn to for an example of their best stuff. All in all, it’s hard to argue with this. Essential listening.

“Gingerbread Boy” has been played many times over through the years… Elvin Jones and Dexter Gordon, to name a couple, have led bands that have performed the tune. I’ll jump ahead a few decades, though, to a 1997 release from J.J. Johnson. On The Brass Orchestra, the band includes Johnson, Robin Eubanks, Steve Turre, and Dave Purviance on trombone, Jon Faddis, Joe Wilder, and Eddie Henderson on trumpet, Howard Johnson and Tom Everett on tuba, Dan Faulk on sax, Renee Rosnes on piano, Rufus Reed on bass, Victor Lewis on drums, and Milton Cardona on percussion (phew!). From the opening of the tune, it’s clear that this version will be different, as this opens up sounding like the theme from a spy movie. The “Gingerbread Boy” theme is slowed down during the introduction over Lewis’ backbeat drums, but then the band plays through the theme at a faster tempo starting around 0:45, still over the backbeat drums and still with a spy theme feeling. At about 1:25, a tambourine joins in and a trombone solo starts with Rosnes raking her piano strings. The trombone solo is a strong melodic statement surrounded by lots of additional layers from the horns and percussion, while Rosnes’ piano punctuates with chords. This moves to a trumpet solo starting around 2:40. This is great stuff, an incredibly strong groove as the trumpet improvises a nice solo based on the tune’s melody. A sax solo follows the trumpet solo. Following the sax solo, there’s an amazing section starting at around 4:20 with what sounds like semi-chaotic brass playing. Then there is a huge swell from the horns that reaches its apex at around 5:10 as the band plays one phrase from the “Gingerbread Boy” head and then brings this version to an end. Wow! Amazing arrangement of this tune, a completely original take on this classic song.

Something was in the air in 1997, as Kurt Elling’s album The Messenger, also released that year, included his group’s take on “Gingerbread Boy.” Elling’s vocals are joined by Laurence Hobgood on piano, Rob Amster on bass, and Paul Wertico on drums. This version of the tune is based on the Miles Davis version, with the same arrangement that showed up on Miles Smiles and a tempo that is closer to that album than to the versions led by Jimmy Heath. Elling sings the melody line in the opening at first, then is joined by Hobgood’s piano. Following the head, Elling takes a scat-vocal solo starting at around 0:25. Elling takes a pretty wild solo here with some inventive comping from Hobgood. Very energetic playing from the whole band, led by Elling’s vocal line. Phew, Elling reaches for a very high note at about 1:30, then brings it back down… great, uninhibited stuff. This leads to an unaccompanied solo on piano from Hobgood, and it keeps the energy very high following Elling’s example. Just before 3:00, the drums and bass explode back in, in unison – if this doesn’t move you, check your pulse. The piano solo ends at about 3:40 with a deep note, leading to a drum solo from Wertico. The energy on this version of the tune is through the roof, with Wertico seemingly channeling Tony Williams here. At about 4:30, the group returns to the “Gingerbread Boy” theme, play through the head, and end the tune. High, high, high energy, very much built off of Miles Davis’ arrangement and approach to the tune. Elling’s scatting is truly virtuosic here, as is Hobgood’s piano playing.

More recently, Kendrick Scott’s 2009 album Reverence, featuring Scott on drums, Gerald Clayton on Rhodes piano, Mike Moreno on guitar, Walter Smith III on sax, and Derrick Hodge on bass, included this group’s take on “Gingerbread Boy.” This version starts out with unaccompanied drums from Scott, opening with his cymbals and then leading to a full drumkit solo. At about 0:40, the band moves into the tune’s head, punctuated by some mild dissonance and spaciness from Clayton and Moreno in addition to the rhythmic chording that punctuates the tune’s head. Following the head, the band moves into a collective improvisation that isn’t really led by any one member, but instead finds Smith, Clayton, and Moreno tossing the melodic lead back and forth over the drums and bass. The group plays lines based on the “Gingerbread Boy” melody, and sometimes directly quotes from the head. It’s a very interesting take on the middle section of the tune here, and gives the feeling that they could take this in any direction. Just before 4:00, Scott’s drums become busier, though the keys, guitar, and bass don’t drop out here; Scott just solos while the song continues. By 4:30 or so, Moreno’s guitar has taken the lead as Clayton adds some light chords underneath and Smith’s sax provides the punctuation. At around 5:00, the group returns to the “Gingerbread Boy” head and their very original way to play the theme. This is a very interesting arrangement/reconstruction of the Jimmy Heath tune with an original approach to the improvisations in the middle section. Great playing from everyone and an excellent arrangement from Kendrick Scott. I’ll also mention here that Kendrick Scott’s bands have done “Gingerbread Boy” live in at least a few different settings – a January 25, 2011 show recorded by WBGO’s The Checkout features Robert Glasper, Mike Moreno, Brandon Lee and Burniss Earl Travis, and a December 2, 2010 show recorded at Small’s Jazz Club features Taylor Eigsti, John Ellis, Mike Moreno, and Joe Sanders (the same Oracle band from Scott’s 2013 album Conviction).

Following the evolution of “Gingerbread Boy” is like looking at punctuated equilibrium in biological evolution. The versions in the mid 1960s by groups led by or containing Jimmy Heath on sax all showed gradual changes in this tune – the original from On The Trail is a great tune that had a few wrinkles added to it when Heath brought the tune to Jazz ‘n Samba and Mustang!, and accumulated still more changes when the Miles Davis quintet took on this tune on Miles Smiles. Then jumping ahead to the 1990s and beyond, the version of “Gingerbread Boy” on The Messenger is a clear descendant of the Miles Smiles version (with its own wrinkles added, of course), while the arrangements of this tune on The Brass Orchestra and Reverence have branched out very considerably from the original arrangement of the tune. Sure, there are more versions of this tune in the, er, fossil record, but the obvious precursors for these two versions just doesn’t seem to be there. Fifty years of jazz artists playing this tune has led to some great creative versions… what will the new arrangements lead to in another fifty years? Keep listening.

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