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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2004/10/30
by Mike Gruenberg

Is Imitation the Sincerest Form of Flattery?Part 1 – Jazz

The worst offense for a kid in grade school was to be caught cheating on an exam. If your eyes wandered over to your neighbors’ paper during a test and the teacher saw the infraction, there usually was hell to pay. The teacher would call the Principal’s office and the man himself would march up to the classroom and personally escort the perpetrator to his office whereupon a call was placed to the home.
"Hello Mrs. Jones, I have little Johnny here in my office. No No, he isn’t injured. No, he didn’t bring his transistor radio to school again and play it during the Pledge of Allegiance. No, he didn’t forget his bus pass either. It’s far worse, Mrs. Jones; we caught him cheating on his Earth Science test. He was looking at his neighbors’ paper. This is very serious, Mrs. Jones."
Of course, when little Johnny came home that night, he had few if any explanations as to the reason for this incident. Usually, the first excuse that was blurted out "It wasn’t me" was a good start, but hardly believable, especially if you went to parochial school. This usually degenerated to a whole set of useless excuses. One is reminded of the scene in The Blues Brothers where Jake Blues, played by John Belushi is confronted by a jilted at the altar Carrie Fisher holding a machine gun. Belushi uses every possible excuse and with his usual guile and wit, talks his way out of the situation. Had little Johnny seen the Blues Brothers movie, he might have been wise to imitate Belushi’s character in the film, but in the end probably would have fallen short because there was only one Jake, an original and most difficult to imitate.
The music business on the other hand has a propensity of trying to imitate the original. Virtually every month, music is released in which versions of the original hits are sung and performed by other artists. A number of months ago, I interviewed Alex Skolnick. As a young man, Alex performed with the heavy rock band, Testament. Unhappy with his musical direction, Alex turned to a serious discipline of studying jazz guitar and reemerged with a brilliant album of rock classics such as "Dream On" set to a jazz interpretations. Ever since my conversation with Alex, I have thought about the types of albums that have worked and not worked for artists who interpret other peoples’ works. Some work well, while other fall short. Here are a few examples of some that do work quite well.
In my teenage years when I first started to buy records, I always tried to find the obscure artist. It was always a great accomplishment to bring home an album from an unknown group and really like the offering. One of the factors that would go into my decision of whether to buy or not to buy the record was the label. In rock, I knew that most records released on the A&M label by an unknown had a better than average chance of being good. Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, the owners of the label had incredible taste and usually did not disappoint me. In jazz, the Verve label always had the best music.
Today, the jazz label of choice is GRP. Run by Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen, I have yet to find an album in their catalog that is less than great. A number of years ago, I bought an album on GRP by jazz guitarist, Lee Ritenour called Wes bound. In this offering, Ritenour plays 10 tunes in the exact style of the late jazz guitarist, Wes Montgomery. If you didn’t know any better, you would think that Wes was back and alive again. Montgomery had a unique style and Ritenour captures it with great skill. In this case imitation goes beyond flattery and reaches the pinnacle of reverence.
I reached back in my music collection to reference Wes bound which was recorded over eleven years ago because I recently purchased another Ritenour album again on GRP called A Twist of Motown. With help from such jazz music luminaries as George Benson, Ray Parker, Jr., Bob James and Dave Grusin among others, Ritenour takes Motown classics and gives them a jazz interpretation. Classic Motown hits like "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," "The Tracks of My Tears," and "What’s Goin’ On" are given the Ritenour treatment. The guitar interaction between Ritenour and Ray Parker, Jr. on the Stevie Wonder classic, "You Haven’t Done Nothin’" is superb. If you come to expect the best from a Lee Ritenour interpretation album, then this new one does not disappoint in any way. Here too, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
The amount of GRP records in my collection of jazz oriented music is approximately 20% of the entire collection. This is not only because they have such excellent artists recording for the label, but also because I know that if I see an album by an unknown artist on the label, that the odds are better than good that it will be worth the price.
Perhaps my favorite GRP record is called A GRP Artists’ Celebration of the Songs of the Beatles. Artists such as George Benson, Diana Krall, Tom Scott, David Benoit and others interpret such Beatles tunes as "A Day In The Life," "Yesterday," "Eleanor Rigby," etc. Once again, dignity, taste and first rate musicianship are the hallmarks of this album. Flattery aside, this is a great presentation of classic Beatle tunes reinvented.
Discography Wes bound by Lee Ritenour on GRP #9697 A Twist of Motown by Lee Ritenour & friends on GRP #B0000415-02 A GRP Artists Celebration of the Songs of the Beatles on GRP # 9827

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