Bob Dylan + Jazz = True!

“Now, when you think of jazz and are in the Apollo Theatre, there is one name that comes to mind….Bob Dylan!” This words are Wynton Marsalis short introduction to
Bob Dylan´s visit with Wynton Marsalis Septet in a 2004. It´s a joke, but it´s also not a joke. Bob Dylan´s attitude in both making music and singing has always been about not repeating himself, not singing the same song the same way twice, not playing the same solo on the harmonica, the piano or the guitar. The playfulness of his piano solos in his last shows, the striving for the new kind of phrasing a line in stead of resting in repetition is in the DNA of his musicianship, as is his eternally reworking and rewriting of his songs. This is a jazzman´s attitude, even if Bob Dylan appears in different clothes and different settings than the traditional jazz man. To completely understand Bob Dylan and his unique work as an performing artist, this aspect has to be mentioned. Just listen to the joy he enters into his vocals in this clip. He is a jazz man, too.

Lot´s of musicians and singers from the jazz field, already in the sixties, was fascinated by Bob Dylan as an artist, as a singer and as a songwriter. His was a voice without restraint. Nina Simone has been cited as saying that the jazz and Bob Dylan was the only important things that came from America. Even if that´s a bit harsh, it´s an interesting quote. Nina Simone´s emotional and political anger made her say this. Years after, in 2012, Bob Dylan spoke to Rolling Stone about the same issues that made Nina Simone angry: “This country is just too fucked up about color. It’s a distraction. People at each other’s throats just because they are of a different color. It’s the height of insanity, and it will hold any nation back – or any neighborhood back. Or any anything back.” 

In 2015 Bob Dylan said this about her: “Nina Simone. I used to cross paths with her in New York City in the Village Gate nightclub. She was an artist I definitely looked up to. She recorded some of my songs that she learned directly from me, sitting in a dressing room. She was an overwhelming artist, piano player and singer. Very strong woman, very outspoken and dynamite to see perform. That she was recording my songs validated everything that I was about. Nina was the kind of artist that I loved and admired.”

Her are some of the finest versions of Bob Dylan´s songs ever made. This might be the most beautiful of them all.

There are also jazz instrumentalists acknowledging Bob Dylan´s sense of melody making – one of the greatest, Keith Jarrett, is one of them.

The wonderful norwegian jazz singer, Radka Toneff, made some of the most beautiful jazz records in norwegian jazz history. In her short life she made an everlasting impression on all that heard her sing, both live and on record. She deserves to be listened to like  one of the great sisters of jazz singing. Her version of “Just Like A Woman” is heartbreaking.

Little Jimmy Scott sings like an angel, and appeared like he came from another world, a world of song alone. Lou Reed said that no one could sing as slow as Jimmy and still make it swing. Listen closely.

Another instrumentalist, the virtuoso guitarist Bill Frisell, that explores all sides of american music and brings it into a jazz kind of environment, also played some Dylan. Here he improvises his version of “A Hard Rain´s A-Gonna Fall”.

When the jazz vocalist and keyboardist Ben Sidran made his 36th album he made it an album of Bob Dylan covers. It´s a joy, wit exciting new takes on the material, and it builds a bridge between genres. Thom Jurek says this about the album: Dylan Different reveals Sidran as being in full possession of his jazz and creative gifts but also his ones for interpretive song; by turns, with this fine album, he adds even more weight to the argument that Dylan is a writer of folk songs that transcend their eras of origin in relevancy.” Later on Sidran brought the songs to the road and also made a beautiful live album with a long spoken intro of his relations to Bob Dylan, describing the show as a Ben Sidran show, but that “Bob Dylan is just the vehicle we´re driving”.

There is a lot of younger artists in almost any genre that, while finding their own voice and way, connects with Dylan as an inspiration both in attitude and choice of material. Curtis Stiger is one of them.

The great jazz singer Madeleine Peyroux, with her magical Billie-Holiday-qualities in her voice, and a slight resemblance of Jeff Buckley in her vocal style, is phenomenal at her best. This is one of her really beautiful moments.

Cassandra Wilson has made a long string of wonderful cover versions, spanning both decades and genres – her version of Son House´s “Death Letter” are one of my all time favorites. Some years ago Bob Dylan was asked who he would have liked to make a cover of one of his songs. His answer was: Cassandra Wilson. Not long after this came the first.

“Sam Cooke said this when told he had a beautiful voice: He said, “Well that’s very kind of you, but voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.” Think about that the next time you listen.” This was Dylan himself speaking in his surprising and revealing MusiCares Person Of The Year Speech in 2015. It was like he has heard it all, read it all, the put-down of his vocals through the years, very often reviewed by people using  a completely different kind of aesthetics than his singing ever were meant to please. Like in his wolf man reciting of Sam Cooke´s own “A Change Is Gonna Come” on the 70th anniversary of Apollo Theatre. It´s a vocal that is almost frightening in it´s rawness and nakedness, not hiding either age, rage, anger or despair over the state of things forty years after Sam Cooke made the song, inspired by the young Bob Dylan´s “Blowing In The Wind”. Dylan is singing soul music. The word to describe it might not be “beautiful” or “nice”, but it´s hard, tough love and powerful beyond words. Just listen. It´s soul and it´s jazz. Bob Dylan was on the same stage as Martin Luther King at the “March on Washington”. You can tell by listening to this, how he feels about the state of the union.

Then I go to my brother
And I say brother help me please
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees, oh

There is absolutely nothing mysterious with Bob Dylan´s strolling into the “Great American Songbook” – on the contrary, it´s a natural next step of his never ending journey of musical discovery and dissemination. He don´t want us to forget the great songs, in a world with too much information and too short memory.

Johnny Borgan

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