The first thing you need to understand as a listener is that this is not a cover album. In fact, you may struggle to recognize some of the tunes which are long-time familiar, but that will improve with subsequent listens. Each artist was given the challenge to create a work that would push the musical envelope by presenting an impressionistic rendering of a favorite song from the Beatles’ iconic Sgt. Pepper album. The results are akin to modern art versus traditional art. It takes time to wrap your head around A Day in the Life – Impressions of Pepper.
The Impulse! label gathered some of the great progressive contemporary jazz musicians to participate in this project. As the title says, these are impressions of songs – bits of melody, a riff here and there, or a set of harmonics to build on. Label President Danny Bennett says, “I’m proud to say that what you hear are enduring interpretations, wholly original, which more than exceeded my expectations.”
Words of caution – set your expectations realistically. Like any tribute, there are brilliant moments and near misses. Yet, given the challenge, all musicians should be commended for trying. They include Impulse! UK saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and pianist Sullivan Fortner. Verve recording artist Miles Mosley (Kamasi Washington’s bassist) and pianist Cameron Graves from L.A.’s West Coast Get Down are here along with the Onyx Collective from NYC, Makaya McCraven and JuJu Exchange from Chicago. Percussionist Antonio Sanchez, guitarist Mary Halvorson, harpist Brandee Young, trumpeter Keyon Harrold and the trio Wildflower also contribute. It would be difficult to find a better collection of today’s progressive players, so it could serve as a terrific sampler for many.
The strongest sequence extends from “Getting Better,” performed by the trio Wildflower with burning sax from Idris Rahman to Graves’ solo piano rendition of “Fixing a Hole” to Keyon Harrold’s enveloping trumpet for “She’s Leaving Home” to the beautiful harp from sextet leader Brandee Younger on “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” On the latter, the use of flute and harp seems especially appropriate for the song.
Sullivan Fortner also delivers a strong solo piano performance on “When I’m Sixty-Four” while Graves appears again with sometime bandmate, bassist Miles Mosley, who is a magician on the upright bass for “Lovely Rita” Some of the others are bit further out there in terms of electronica and approach, notably Onyx Collective on “Within You Without You” and JuJu Exchange on “A Day in Life,” arguably two songs that beg for stretching the limits. Shabaka & The Ancestors deliver a compelling version of “Good Morning Good Morning” that suffers a bit from repetition in the beginning before it kicks in.
To better understand some of these approaches, it’s helpful to hear directly from the artist(s). Here are a couple of excerpts. Shabaka Hutchings says of the process, “I took melodic fragments from throughout the song and used these as starting posts for my imagination to complete the phrases I saw fit. I tried to see the tube as a mine of raw materials whereby I extract core musical information then process it into what I define as beauty.”
Mary Halvorson, who performs a lilting but dissonant version of “With A Little Help From My Friends” says, “My approach ….was largely based on memory and nostalgia; rather than sticking closely to the original, I tried to focus on the feeling of timelessness the song inspires, relying on the power of melody and memory, and embracing distortions that may have arisen over time.”
Drummer Antonio Sanchez opens the album with a psychedelic, percussive interpretation of the title track in which he plays keyboards, guitars, electric bass and electronics. He recorded all the instruments and engineered it himself, commenting, “The solitude of creating in that fashion in my own recording studio gives me unlimited creative freedom. I applied a 9/4 time signature on certain sections to make it a little bit more my own and overdubbed a few different drum sets with different tunings.”
For over fifty years both the groundbreaking Sgt. Peppers and the exploratory Impulse! label have been with us. So, chalk this up as one big nod for innovation. The album has already been released in CD, digital, and streaming platforms but look for a wide vinyl release on January 18, 2019.