We Have a Dream: A Critical Analysis of Covers

A recent New York Times article by Andrew Bird described the way that a fragment of a melody that came into his head at an airport developed to become a fully-realized song. In this one songwriter’s mind, the tune continued to develop and grow organically until it became what it was “trying” to become. Jazz musicians play each others’ songs, and they are never really “done”. Not an original observation, of course, but stick with me. Of course there are the many, many versions of jazz standards – pick your favorite version of, say, “My Funny Valentine” or “Straight, No Chaser”. Beyond the standards, though, there are many, many songs out there that have been played by so many great jazz musicians in so many different ways. Listening to these different interpretations of a song and hearing the way the song develops over decades and among different musicians and groups of musicians can be revelatory. I hope to in time try to highlight some of these great songs that are outside of the standard repertory, and I’ll probably hit on a few songs that are standards or semi-standards along the way. Hopefully this shines a little bit of light on some deserving non-standards and how jazz musicians in 2013 are playing songs that might be better-known from half a century ago.

I’ll start with “I Have a Dream” by Herbie Hancock. This song is from Herbie’s 1969 album The Prisoner, but actually showed up in rehearsal, though not in a final form, in some sessions with the Miles Davis quintet, as collected on The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings Of The Miles Davis Quintet January 1965 – June 1968. Today, a group of Houston musicians including Robert Glasper, Mike Moreno, and Kendrick Scott keep this tune in rotation in their bands. They played the tune (along with Alan Hampton on bass) in a 2011 session led by Kendrick Scott that was recorded by The Checkout as part of the 713>212 series put together by Jason Moran (this series included the rightly celebrated Glasper/Moran double trio, but this Kendrick Scott show is very badly slept on). David Weiss’ group, Point of Departure, has also included “I Have a Dream” on their albums Snuck In and Venture Inward.

Herbie brought “I Have a Dream” to the Miles Davis band in unfinished form, and their (I assume) first shots at this song were recorded. The band takes this first at a very fast tempo, with guitar providing the repeating rhythmic chord that anchors later versions (interesting to compare with Mike Moreno’s take on the tune… more on that later) and Miles’ trumpet providing the melody. About a minute in, the band stops, then restarts with Miles giving some instructions. The bass is very prominent when they re-start, and Miles and Wayne Shorter have some tentative back-and-forth with the song’s melody. The whole band seems to be basically grooving along, feeling out the song and figuring out some structure… another break about three minutes in and then we’re back to a Herbie Hancock piano solo with Tony Williams and Ron Carter at a slightly slower tempo and sounding great. Herbie agrees, telling Tony Williams to “Keep it up, that was hip right there,” around 4:30, then they come back in together, still just the trio. Ron Carter’s bass slides around 5:30 are so ill… the trio seems pretty comfortable with the song around here, and Ron Carter’s bass playing opens up a bit. The song is still tentative here, but the end of this sounds like a great piano trio. I wish they’d come back to this song in their 1977 and 1981 trio albums led by Herbie.

On The Prisoner, the song now opens with a very hard-grooving bassline and a much more relaxed tempo. Horns give the intro a lush, stately feeling, combined with the slower tempo and Hubert Laws’ flute stating the melody. Herbie’s piano doesn’t even come in until about a minute in, and only adding a flourish at first. The horns and winds sound completely different from the versions with the Miles Davis band – obviously Herbie spent some time orchestrating this song quite a bit more since that initial attempt at recording it, and it sounds like he’s spent some time listening to Gil Evans in the meantime. At about 2:30, Herbie jumps in with a piano solo over this lush, relaxed background. Buster Williams and Tootie Heath on bass and drums give a contrast with the Ron Carter/Tony Williams trio sound, but this is clearly influenced by the trio playing toward the end of that first version. After Herbie’s solo, we get a couple of horn solos, then back to the lush melody from the horns and winds to close the song. A much expanded version of the song and now complete. Reminds me of some of Herbie’s writing for film scores from this period.

Kendrick Scott led a band in January 2011 with Alan Hampton, Mike Moreno, and Robert Glasper for their version of “I Have a Dream,” recorded by WBGO’s The Checkout. Alan Hampton’s opening bass statements lead to the hard-grooving bassline from the version on The Prisoner. The song comes in mysteriously courtesy of Mike Moreno’s spacy sounds on guitar and Robert Glasper’s piano tinklings. They take this at something closer to the tempo that was used on The Prisoner, but with the feel of the piano trio at the end of the rehearsal track with the Miles Davis band. By 1:30 or so, the song has come together with Mike Moreno stating the melody. Robert Glasper’s piano takes the groove, sounding very modern and yet obviously very influenced by Herbie’s playing on the earlier versions of this song. After a brief guitar solo from Mike Moreno, Robert Glasper’s underappreciated acoustic piano playing takes over… around 3:45, he hits on a perfect repeated piano chord that is easily identifiable as Robert Glasper, couldn’t be anybody else. This piano solo moves along with very strong bass and drum backing… nice rhythmic group improvisation around 5:30, still led by Robert’s piano. Kendrick Scott’s backbeat around 7:00 makes this really calmly intense, if that makes much sense, then the whole band breaks it back down around 7:30 as Mike Moreno’s guitar takes the lead to build it back up. The band grooves along confidently and Kendrick Scott’s snare work at the end of the song is fantastic while the song dissolves away one piece at a time, Alan Hampton’s bassline holding it all together. This version is clearly led by Robert Glasper, but feels very much like a group improvisation. This has the completeness of the version from “The Prisoner” with the looseness of the trio playing from the rehearsals of the Miles Davis band. Required listening, a great take on this song.

This tune from Herbie Hancock, written in the late ‘60s and developed over years in Herbie’s hands, has taken root with the players featured on the Kendrick Scott-led version above and continued to grow 50 years after it first came into existence. “I Have a Dream” has shown up on Mike Moreno’s 2008 album Third Wish (with Kendrick Scott on drums, Kevin Hays on piano, and Doug Weiss on bass) and on Kendrick Scott’s excellent Conviction album (with Mike Moreno on guitar, Taylor Eigsti on piano, and Joe Sanders on bass). Several versions of Robert Glasper’s trio have also explored this tune (here with Alan Hampton on bass and Mark Colenburg on drums, here with Vicente Archer on bass and Jamire Williams on drums).

In addition to the group of musicians mentioned above that regularly play “I Have a Dream,” the David Weiss-led Point of Departure included “I Have a Dream” on a pair of recent albums, Snuck In (culled from their 2008 live sets at the Jazz Standard) and Venture Inward (a studio effort with most of the same line-up and material). On Venture Inward, Weiss on trumpet is joined by J.D. Allen on saxophone, Jamire Williams on drums (also the drummer on this Robert Glasper-led version of the tune), Nir Felder on guitar, and Luques Curtis on bass. They take “I Have a Dream” at a high tempo, something close to the original tempo in the rehearsals with Miles Davis’ band. From the opening of the tune, Curtis’ bass and Williams’ drums are locked together, a strong rhythmic foundation for the rest of the band. They keep this going through the entire song, great backing for the soloists. Weiss and Allen start the tune with some back and forth over Felder’s guitar chords, then move into the song’s melody around 1:30 (compare the back and forth here with Miles and Wayne Shorter’s back and forth in the original rehearsal versions – this is very similar). The first solo is from Weiss on trumpet, backed by a nice chordal bed from Felder’s guitar. A strong solo throughout, I especially like the ending around 4:00 over Felder’s descending guitar chords. Felder drops out completely for a great sax solo from J.D. Allen after Weiss’ trumpet solo. Allen, Williams, and Curtis are killing it through this section, with Allen leading the way. He touches back with the song’s melody regularly, while giving a very melodic original solo. Around 6:00, Felder re-enters for his solo with a mysterious-sounding chord. By about 7:45, he has taken his solo pretty far out, but brings back the song’s melody and continues until around 9:00, when the horns come back for another round of back and forth over the guitar’s chords. The trumpet and sax re-state the song’s melody around 10:00, then the band grooves along until they shift into “Black Comedy” starting around 11:15 – great segue from “I Have a Dream” into “Black Comedy” here. This version of “I Have a Dream” takes a lot of suggestions from the rehearsal version with the Miles Davis band, with the obvious change that this band lacks a piano player, instead using Nir Felder’s guitar in that role.

These contemporary versions of “I Have a Dream” take suggestions from the earlier versions, but also significantly add to the song’s structure and change the feel of the song. It’s interesting that both the Kendrick Scott and David Weiss-led versions seem to have taken a lot of inspiration from the rehearsal versions with Miles’ band, though that band unfortunately never returned to the tune for a fully-realized version. I don’t intend this to be an complete listing of contemporary musicians doing “I Have a Dream,” either– Wallace Roney, Continuum, and Pablo Held, I’m sure among others, have added their own voices and ideas to this tune. Much as we (rightly) admire the originators, today’s musicians have much to say about this music. This conversation is continuing.