Sony Music Masterworks is taking aim at the younger generation of music listeners. In an attempt to make jazz relevant again, it has assembled “a rotating ensemble of today’s leading, up-and-coming and established jazz musicians,” called New Masters with the inaugural lineup comprised of pianist Sullivan Fortner, drummer Eric Harland, trumpeter Keyon Harrold, guitarist Gilad Hekselman, bassist Burniss Earl Travis and saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins with the appearance of special guest percussionist Bashiri Johnson. The project, entitled ReWORKS with its Volume 1 dropping July 12th, aims at taking on today’s biggest chart-topping hits, originally performed by the likes of Cardi B, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and SZA, and reworking them (see what I did there?) in the spirit of contemporary jazz music with the hope of showcasing to unassuming neophytes what the genre has to offer. The first song in the series, Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams”, arranged by Hekselman, can be streamed at the end of this post alongside the original.
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Illustrating the disconnect that some of the more intellectual jazz musicians can have from the “real” world, Hekselman says of the song: “It was definitely a challenge to take on ‘Lucid Dreams’ because it was a song that was completely off my radar (although I’m familiar with ‘Shape of My Heart,’ the Sting tune it’s based on). Only after recording it did I start noticing how many times this song would be playing out of cars or on the radio—it was a good opportunity to get out of my jazz bubble and connect to what’s popular these days. I tried to do something with it that respects the original, yet offers a platform for the band’s expression. Of course, I had no doubt that in the hands of these master musicians, no matter what I did or didn’t do with it, it’d turn into something beautiful, and it did.”
ReWORKS, the brainchild of veteran jazz producer Matt Pierson, isn’t a completely original concept. Brad Mehldau has made a career out of covering Radiohead songs which paved the way for many imitators to follow in his footsteps. Vijay Iyer has also meddled with covers including tracks by M.I.A. and Flying Lotus and Yaron Herman put his name on the map by being the first (to the best of my knowledge) to cover Britney Spears. But the closest iteration of the concept has to be Concord Music Group’s 2013 supergroup the NEXT Collective with its album entirely made up of covers by the likes of Kanye West and JAY-Z, N*E*R*D, and Drake (sounds familiar?). More recently, jazz band Kneebody has also dropped a series of covers on their Youtube channel by such artists as Rihanna, John Legend and Cardi B (again, sounds familiar?) and Kassa Overall released his Drake It Till You Make It EP entirely comprised of Drake covers (beating a dead horse over here).
In order to rationalize the “clickbaitiness” (yeah, totally made that up) of ReWORKS, Pierson states that: “Fifteen years ago I would have signed each of these guys, but that’s not possible today. The challenge the jazz and jazz-adjacent community currently faces is that our existing audience hasn’t embraced the streaming platforms, while those already utilizing the platforms aren’t being directed to jazz. The intent of the ReWORKS concept is to proactively bridge this gap, using a streaming mentality to creatively subvert how consumers find tracks online and work these newer, singular jazz artists into search results and playlists.” Pierson adds: “Of course, for this particular effort to be effective long-term, the material needs to be familiar, leading with groove and melody, while remaining artistically uncompromising. I’m confident that these first six tracks achieve this goal, and give us a shot at expanding the audience for undeniably great, creative music and remaining true to the musicians who make it happen.”
Now I, for one, do not believe that streaming is a real and permanent solution. With Spotify paying $0.00473 per play, artists would need around 336,842 total plays to earn $1,472 1. With its niche status, making a living off streaming just isn’t realistic for most jazz musicians. Instead, when operating in a niche, I would rather advise for Kevin Kelly’s “1000 true fans” approach.
Although I may sound somewhat skeptic of ReWORKS’ success and condemn its genuine lack of originality, I do hope deep down that they succeed where others have failed. Jazz music is in dire need of growing its ageing fanbase in order to ensure that its artists, its community and its overall ecosystem truly thrive for years to come. And if it doesn’t work out, we’ll still have a bunch of cool covers to listen to. We’ve always loved covers over here at Nextbop.
ReWORKS Vol. 1, the new album by supergroup New Masters, drops July 12th on Sony Music Masterworks.