IMPRESSIONS OF PEPPER ROUND ROBIN | New York, Winter Jazz Fest

It was 50-ish years ago today Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play. They’ve been going in and out of style (mostly in, let’s be honest) but they’re guaranteed to inspire tributes, reinterpretations and a lifetime of simplicity and sophistication of musical experience. A Day in the Life, Impressions of Pepper is the Implulse! label’s offering in the ‘Beatles Reimagined’ sub-genre and this evening at the Sheen Center featured many of the jazz artists and their interpretations of the classic album.

First clue that this is going to be a bit trippy is the video shown ahead of the show. The 280 capacity theatre space is equipped with sumptuous technology including a screen onto which is projected an animation akin to psychedelic Monty Python cartoons that among other things show purple worms jumping in and out of a brain. The warning seemed clear: strap in, this is not going to be a karaoke session. Jazz musicians of course earn their strips reworking and improvising through the Standards (core repertoire) and there is a standard-esque feel to Sgt. Pepper: songs we all understand the DNA of and so can process the divergence from this expected path. There is a lot of divergence here. Mark Guiliana finds new drum beats as the eponymous track is looped, the screen is retracted and Liberty Ellman’s guitar lines find a way through ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’.

As well as finding new versions of the album tracks, the inspiration therein extends to  new incarnations of artists. Makaya McCraven, usually found behind the drums, is instead using pre-programmed pads to create a new identity for ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ and then quietly walks off stage to make way for Brian Jackson (Fender Rhodes) and Davíd Virelles (piano) who are ‘Fixing a Hole’. It’s around this point that the mind realises that the ‘hole’ in these performances is that there are no singers and none of those famous words. Rather specially though, the imagery of these songs is so well-known that the brains in the room are almost certainly all filling in the gaps, allowing the exceptional musicianship to roam widely, unfettered by the constraints that lyrics may put on these creations. Other than Matthew Whitaker’s rather straight version of ‘When I’m 64′ there’s also a parlour game element to guessing what on earth the next track will be. It’s fun, and the artists recruited for this homage demonstrates the love and respect in which the music is held by the most enterprising members of the jazz community.

Richard Curtis and Danny Boyle have made a new film (set for release in September 2019) set in a world where the lead character is the only person that remembers the Beatles’ music. Where both that film and this album find a shrewd commonality is that to cover the Fab Five’s work is almost always a fool’s errand. However, in the re-framing of their film and this album, the methodology is not to great imitations of the untouchable work, it is to demonstrate that the gold-standard excellence of the originals gives life to new music that is simultaneously unrecognisable and familiar all at once. In Impressions of Pepper we find an unusual chemical combination of popular impressionism: scenes that we remember from our first contact and see new personality in through the artists who interpret in a new space. These tracks might not make much sense without prior knowledge of the originals but with that understanding in place, they’re guaranteed to raise a smile.

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