I guess that there are at least three obvious reasons why jazz musicians have always gravitated towards playing standards (at least as a part of their repertoire). By standards, I’m referring to the classics by the great composers of popular song of the first half of the twentieth century: the Gershwins, Porter, Arlen, Kern, Rodgers (with both Hart and Hammerstein), et al. For one, the songs are melodically appealing and harmonically interesting, and so make good subject matter for a musician and provide good jumping-off points for his or her own improvisations. A second reason—I would suggest—is that the songs are lyrically strong. Even when there is no singing (or perhaps especially when there is no singing) it is advantageous for the music to have an emotional and poetic anchor in words that may be unheard but are known to the players and likely to the listeners as well. And the third reason is familiarity itself: if your audience knows the songs, then they will more readily accept your performance and more easily perceive what you are adding to the music. Likewise, your fellow musicians know the songs, and the ways in which your rendition varies from those that have come before will define your uniqueness as a player.
When Swedish saxophonist Joakim Milder decided to record a whole album of songs by Paddy McAloon (Quoted Out Of Context – Milder PS), I guess he decided that two out of three wasn’t so bad. That is, McAloon (leader of erstwhile British band Prefab Sprout) writes songs that meet the criteria of being melodically inventive and lyrically strong, but I don’t think anyone could claim that they are well-known enough to constitute a common currency amongst jazz musicians. And in any case, Milder and his musical cohorts avoid the few obvious hits from the McAloon ouevre (e.g. “When Love Breaks Down,” “Cars and Girls,” and “King of Rock & Roll”).
The very broad and distinctly tasteful look at McAloon’s body of work that is offered by the tracklist is one of the things about the album that I liked instantly, including as it does songs like “Andromeda Heights,” “God Watch Over You,” and “I Trawl the Megahertz.” And on listening, it is simply a delight for a fan of McAloon’s songwriting to hear his material being performed with the kind of intelligence, maturity and depth of feeling that Joakim Milder and his colleagues bring to this record.
An example is better than any number of characterizations, and an ideal one is probably the version of “Nightingales.” The version by Milder and company can be heard below embedded via SoundCloud. (For comparison, the original Prefab Sprout version is no doubt easily found on YouTube, and one might even find a rare solo piano rendition by the songwriter).
The song “Nightingales” possesses a melody both gorgeous and perpetually teasing to the ear. By itself it would announce that McAloon is a rare talent. Lyrically, it is also teasing: a rhetorical, one-sided conversation about nothing less than the meaning of existence. Questions are softly posed, inadequate answers are brushed off, and a conclusion is offered that is all but proven by the existence of the song itself, in a kind of circular philosophical gambit.
Milder, with his saxophone, joins in the conversation, and adds to it. He contributes no histrionics, and does not stretch anything beyond its breaking point, but nevertheless imparts his own particular urgencies and poignancies. And the sound of the entire ensemble is a true joy of sensitivity and focus.
I could go down the list, and there would be similar observations to make about each and every track. It is that good an album. McAloon has had a fair number of cover versions recorded of his songs, but not to my mind (or my knowledge) by anyone with the kind of musical chops needed to lift the material out of a very contemporary pop context and into the more timeless zone which I think it is, at its best, worthy of occupying. That it would be a jazz instrumentalist who would do this is surprising, but surprises like this are very welcome.
The album has been out for a while, and I’ve long had it on my mind to write something about it, but the timing now is perversely apt, because a long-awaited brand new album by Paddy McAloon is being released shortly. It’s under the moniker of “Prefab Sprout,” but McAloon (who some years ago developed ear trouble that prevents him from easily working with a band) provides all of the instrumentation. It’s titled Crimson/Red, and previews suggest it is (perhaps surprisingly) a very bright, energetic collection of pop songs.
I’ll be happy indeed if it has just one or two tunes as good as the great “Doo Wop in Harlem.” A live version from McAloon and Prefab is discoverable on YouTube. The lovely rendition by Joakim Milder and company is embedded below.
You can find the Milder PS album through Amazon UK: Quoted Out Of Context – Music by Paddy McAloon
The full tracklist is:
1. Couldn’t Bear To Be Special
2. Doo Wop In Harlem
3. Anne Marie
4. I Trawl The Megahertz
7. God Watch Over You
8. Andromeda Heights
9. Jesse James Symphony & Bolero
10. Pearly Gates