'Impressions of Pepper': Jazz Artists Talk Covering the Beatles for New Album

The Beatles during a photocall to promote their 'Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'.
John Pratt/Keystone/Getty Images

The Beatles during a photocall to promote their 'Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'.

“The Beatles arrived in New York right around the time of my birthday, so when I was a kid my dad used to -- as a tradition -- take me to FAO Schwarz and I got to pick out a toy,” explains Verve Label Group president and CEO Danny Bennett (his father, of course, being renowned pop icon Tony Bennett). “And I remember walking down 58th street and we were on our way to the toy store, which was on the southeast corner of 5th Avenue and 58th, and we heard all this screaming. And I saw all these girls crowded around the plaza. So I look up and the four of them had their heads out the window and throwing ties and all these things down to the girls. It totally caught a spark for me.”

For Bennett, having his famous father represented by the legendary Sid Bernstein -- who not only promoted Tony and Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra, but was also responsible for bringing the British Invasion to American shores -- had its perks, especially for a young Beatles fan.

“Sid Bernstein was like my uncle,” he admits. “And he was the promoter at the time. So he took me to Forest Hills, and I was in their dressing room at Shea Stadium. The Beatles have been a lifelong obsession for me.”

As someone who grew up immersed in the dual worlds of jazz and the Fabs for the majority of his 64 years, Danny Bennett saw the perfect opportunity to make an addition to the ever-ongoing conversation between bop and the Beatles by paying homage to them in the form of the tribute album A Day in the Life: Impressions of Pepper, released on the Impulse! imprint, where Shirley Scott covered “Can’t Buy Me Love” on her 1964 LP Queen of the Organ and guitarist Gábor Szabó would transform “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” into a near-ten minute instrumental explosion on his 1967 LP More Sorcery. And perhaps cosmically working off Szabó’s vision, Bennett and his ace A&R team at the Verve Music Group cherry-picked a number of the hottest acts in modern jazz to reinterpret a song off the Beatles’ 1967 psychedelic conceptual opus Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The tracklist reads like a who’s who of the current scene, including such noteworthy names as Sullivan Fortner, the New York-based Onyx Collective, Chicago’s the JuJu Exchange, London’s Wildflower and Kamasi Washington keyboardist Cameron Graves.

What they turned out is arguably the finest full-length interpretation of Beatles material that jazz has offered since the two first crossed paths on that aforementioned Shirley Scott LP on Impulse!. So it was only fitting to see this visionary 21st century update of the group’s pop masterpiece adorn the classic white, orange and black colors of the historic label.

“It's universal stuff,” explains Bennett of the Beatles’ music and its ability to be shaped by artists. “I call it ‘complex simplicity,’ because once you put those two things together you get great art. All great art is arresting in that sense. It’s a simple essence that you get across, but when you dive in it becomes more and more complex and keeps you coming back for more. This album is a great way to let people know what’s coming from the new Impulse!.”

Billboard reached out to a number of the artists who appear on A Day In The Life: Impressions of Pepper, asking them three questions about how they became involved in this project and where they got on board with the complex simplicity of John, Paul, George and Ringo as both listeners and creative beings.

I’d love to hear your own personal history with Sgt. Pepper's and how it made an impression on you as a listener and musician when you first discovered it.

Shabaka Hutchings, Sons of Kemet/The Comet is Coming/Shabaka and the Ancestors: I hadn’t heard the album before I was asked to be a part of this project. I’d heard of the Beatles but their music has always seemed so far removed from my cultural context I’ve never given them a proper listening (apart from the songs ”She Said, She Said” and ”Michelle”). I did some proper listening to their discography after tackling this work and they’re really good.

Mary Halvorson: The Beatles run very deep for me, because they are one of the first bands I ever heard as a child, and one of the first bands I fell in love with. My parents had Sgt. Pepper on vinyl, so I must have been really young when I first heard it, probably before I ever played an instrument. This record in particular made a strong impact. The songs are so powerful; it felt like all the melodies were being imprinted on my mind. It was one of my first glimpses into the weight an album can carry. And to this day the album seems just as relevant.

Antonio Sanchez: The Beatles have been part of my musical consciousness since I can remember. My mother used to play a lot of their albums around the house and they just became part of my everyday life.

Keyon Harrold: I am a diehard Beatles fan. The Sgt. Pepper’s album is one that I have played and drawn inspiration from quite often. As a musician I have always been drawn to their overall artistry and originality; melodies, harmonic sensibilities, production, musicianship, lyrics and sonic brilliance that is still current.

Dezron Douglas: Well, growing up in the '80s my musical palette was quite thick and I remember loving just about every Beatles tune I came across. It was in middle school that I first heard “With A Little Help From My Friends” as it was used for the theme music to the TV Show The Wonder Years. Around that same time I heard “Yellow Submarine” and I began to actually really check out the Beatles. 

Brandee Younger: I guess I’m giving my age away, but I used to watch The Wonder Years and I loved the Joe Cocker theme song, and that was my introduction to the record...believe it or not. I loved “With a Little Help from My Friends” and was curious to hear the original!

Miles Mosley: My mother is a massive Beatles fan. Every album, every compilation, every movie, anything that had to do with The Beatles was part of the musical rotation in my household. She and I would sing Beatles songs together as she drove me to school in the morning. I hold their music in a very safe and warm spot in my heart, a nest built by a mother's love. Sgt. Pepper’s always felt like the first fork in the road, sonically speaking. Everything up through Revolver seemed of one train of thought, and then Sgt. Pepper’s comes along and begins the journey that would see them through to the end. I remember as a child being fascinated by their use of phase; I didn’t know what the effect was, but it felt like a dream state. It was also the first time I’d experienced an album that played out like cinema; that had a huge effect on the musical choices and tolerances I would have in the future.

Makaya McCraven: I remember first listening to Sgt. Pepper’s as a grade school kid sifting through my parents record collection. Funny that the song that most sticks out from that record for me was “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” which is what I performed for this record. I can remember being able to pick up the melodies and how they stayed with me afterwards. The Beatles had a way of writing music that is very melodic and catchy, and which is definitely influential to how I think about making music.

What was the most challenging and/or rewarding aspect in translating the song that you interpreted from Sgt. Pepper's into the context of creative jazz?

Shabaka Hutchings: I tried to see the song as purely raw materials for me to work with. So I went through the entire tune, transcribing basic fragments of melodic material and any information I found of interest and used this as a springboard for me to work from. It was like having the Beatles as co-writers for my own project with them giving me the beginning of an idea which I then finish according to my own musical temperament.

Mary Halvorson: The most challenging aspect for me was trying to create something different and new, as opposed to a cheap imitation of the original. When I was working on the arrangement of “A Little Help,” I didn’t spend very much time listening to the original; instead I relied mostly on my memory to dig up various aspects of the tune that had stuck in my mind over the years, and to use those as a starting point. The strength of the melody and the power of memory felt like enough to propel the music into new territory.

Antonio Sanchez: I have to say that it wasn’t as challenging as it was rewarding because the compositions have so much meat on them that they easily lend themselves to exploration and reinvention. I had a great time recording multiple drum tracks with various mic’ing techniques to get different textures and sounds and applying what I have learned about tracking and production to these compositions. One of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had reworking well-known material.

Keyon Harrold: The most challenging yet rewarding aspect of reworking “She’s Leaving Home” was keeping the integrity of a classic while making it mine; intertwining eras and making a song continue to sing minus the lyrics. Most certainly a fun experience.

Dezron Douglas: Brandee had the initial ideas of how she wanted the arrangement to go and when she asked me to help her I had been listening to her play the piece for a few weeks and heard a few different ways she could do the song. So I just threw all of my ideas at her and she picked it what she liked. The most challenging part was the fact that the day we had the session scheduled a Nor’easter hit NYC and everyone made their way to the studio in dangerous weather conditions. The LOVE was very present. I feel it adds a lot to the music. Life happens right before our eyes. 

Brandee Younger: For this project, I was given some direction, but tons of freedom. When the label first called, I assumed that they’d want me to rework “She’s Leaving Home” because of the huge harp feature. Not only that, but I believe the harpist (Sheila Bromberg) was maybe the first woman to appear on a Beatles record, so when I learned that the song was “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” I was floored. There is so much music within that two and a half minute song and I wasn’t certain exactly what I could do with it but there were two things that jumped out to me: 1., I heard elements of Alice Coltrane’s Ptah the el Daoud in the second half of the melody and 2., the waltz section stuck out to me as strikingly beautiful and lyrical, and so I knew I wanted to highlight those two elements. Thankfully, Dezron Douglas worked on the horn arrangement with me for that so that the melody the Beatles sung was still present but not exact. The lyrical section I mentioned -- once we started playing around with it -- I ended up referring to it as the “slow jam” section. We recorded the song pretty much true to form and while in the studio, Ravi Coltrane suggested we flip it around. So we literally cut it in half and put the slow jam toward the beginning with the flute feature and the pronounced horn line/melody toward the end of the track. The musicians on the recording really made it all work out. Most of the agony was spent at home deciding what to do with which instruments, and then showing up (we recorded it the day of the bomb cyclone here in NYC).

Miles Mosley: I was asked to reimagine “Lovely Rita.” My main challenge was finding a way into the story behind the song, the intent. That allowed me to put some muscle into the piece. It’s a campy tune, executed in a style that is so iconically Beatles. It has their dark humor all over it, and lives and dies by its lyric. After sitting and listening critically to everything beneath the surface of the song, I landed on Paul’s bass line at the very end of the tune, which felt uncharacteristic to the rest of the track. The bassline has this awesome “hump” to it, something that I think Mr. McCartney does very well. If you solo the basslines of a lot of Beatles tunes, the context becomes really funky, and aggressive. So, my approach was to make the entire song feel the way the groove at the end feels, which makes the “Meter Maid” turn into a Blockbuster Spy-Action Hero starring in Lovely Rita’s Revenge. The absurdity of that is my interpretation of the humor they embody in their original execution of the song. In the end there’s a chuckle at the concept and an appreciation for the music; that’s something at which The Beatles always excelled.

Makaya McCraven: The Beatles’ lyrics are so strong that I felt that without them we are missing an integral element to the music. Not only that but the song itself is so simple yet unique that the challenge was to do something different with it while trying keep it recognizable with the absence of the lyrics.

What is your favorite cover of a Beatles song?

Shabaka Hutchings: I like Mark Turner’s version of “She Said, She Said.” This was the only Beatles song I knew for most of my life, so when I heard the sax infused version at a point when I was particularly into Mark’s work I was happy.

Mary Halvorson: One great Beatles cover is a version of Blackbird from vibraphonist Cecilia Smith’s album The Takeoff (1993), I love her playing... it’s a beautiful arrangement that she really makes her own, while simultaneously honoring the original. It builds and grows effortlessly through so many different moods and sections and has almost a circular kind of feeling to it.

Antonio Sanchez: Pat Metheny’s version of “And I Love Her” is gorgeous. The vibe he gets from his acoustic guitar is always rewarding to listen to and he has a very distinct feel for pop music where he truly respects the composition before sprinkling his own magical dust on it. 

Keyon Harrold: Honestly I am loving this new Sgt. Pepper’s project. But a classic cover to me is Earth, Wind and Fire doing “Got To Get You Into My Life.” It simply jams from the standpoint of creativity and the EWF soul that was infused. 

Dezron Douglas: Definitely Herbie Hancock’s version of “Norwegian Wood.” I remember when that album The New Standard came out. I was in high school and to hear Dave Holland play the melody and Scofield come in with his haunting sound alongside Herbie’s mystical way of making every note he plays behind special completely blew my mind. Now I know you didn’t ask, but if there is one Beatles song that I would love to arrange myself it’s gotta be “Yellow Submarine”. That song has been a part of my life since I first heard it in the third grade. 

Brandee Younger: I’m not sure if this is considered a jazz cover, per se, but the flutist Anne Drummond turned me onto Donny Hathaway’s version of “Yesterday” and it is THE most beautiful cover.

Miles Mosley: Aww, now that’s a tough question! Well, the only way I can fairly answer that is in two parts. One, any time someone from the Motown camp covered a Beatles song it resulted in a mesmerizing display of how rich and fertile those songs were. That being said, in the context of this project, I offer The Young Holt Trio’s cover of “Yesterday.” Performed as a boogaloo, it features Eldee Young on bass and cello. He’s gotta be one of the most underrated bassists of his generation. You’d be hard pressed to find a ‘fonkier’ cello solo than the one that appears on that record.

Makaya McCraven: I’ve always love Brad Mehldau’s version of “Blackbird.” First off, I just love that tune, and I think Mehldau and his trio play it beautifully. I love how the track starts as a solo piece for the melody and the group comes in for the solo section. The arrangement, feel and playing is great. This was in heavy rotation in my college years to today.


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