music: a chorus of Blackbirds

Did Paul McCartney know he wrote the greatest jazz standard since the golden age of the American songbook? The supremely confident moving bass line, the single note “Blackbird singing in the”, the early “dead of” leap in the melody, the hypnotic up-and-down melody “take these broken wings and”, later the musical explosion “into the light of a dark black night” until the upward chords pull you back into the song… it’s a toolkit of parts that begs for a jazz interpretation. Several artists whom I like recorded it recently.

Hiromi’s is solid. She near-quotes “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” a few times, which is gold. I saw her live recently and it was thrilling to hear her slide into “Blackbird.” In this album recording she starts with a two-note birdsong, and the trills and slurs also suggest birds tweeting. People are awed by her Oscar Peterson-level technique, but it’s her long cadences of chord voicings that do it for me; there’s some all too-brief chord magic starting at 3:37.

Jon Batiste has a strangely expressive intro that moves all over until it hits the groove. He plays a chord for the pedal point and moves the chords around. Then he puts a blue note into “Black BERD fly.” He makes it his own.

Brad Mehldau made a fine “Art of the Trio” recording of “Blackbird” (his trio has several other monster interpretations of modern pop songs), but his solo version is sensational. He slows it down and makes the pedal point inevitable, then moves the trilling melody all over the piano’s upper octaves… like a bird singing. It’s a masterpiece of a masterpiece.

Special bonus: disco lite Blackbird

I would love to ask Paul McCartney what he makes of all the jazz takes on “Blackbird,” while surreptitiously playing Sarah Vaughan’s version in the background. It’s nuts! Sawing wood provides the rhythm to the acoustic guitar intro, then it takes a hard left into a “Blackbird-fly way-ahh” funky disco syncopation, then the strings lead into a sub-Boz Scaggs “fly-ah-ah-ah” bridge with two jazz-funk electric guitar solos. David Paich co-wrote “Lowdown” with Boz Scaggs, and he and his dad Marty Paich produced this Sarah Vaughan album of Beatles covers a year later in 1977.

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