Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Two-Fer-Tuesday: Jazz Trumpeters Do a Little Pop Slumming

The theme of tomorrow's radio show will be a little bit unusual. I've decided to play pop songs that feature saxophone solos by jazz saxophone greats.

For Today's Two-fer-Tuesday, I've decided to do something similar – but with a change of instrument.

Although the saxophone is a pretty standard feature of modern pop, rock and r&b, the trumpet is a different story. Which is why it's so great when a musician – a well-respected one, no less – decides to feature it in one of his songs. It's even better when that musician decides to bring in the big guns – or more appropriately, the big horns.

Such is the case with John Mayer and Billy Joel.

"Clarity," from Mayer's second album Heavier Things (2004), is one of my favorite songs from an artist I've really come to admire. People too focused on Mayer's pretty boy looks and sensitive singing are missing the bigger part of the picture. Not only is he one helluva guitar player (just listen to his trio live album or "Axis: Bold as Love" from Continuum (2006) to confirm that fact), but he really has a keen sense of melody that few of his contemporaries possess.

Even if the legendary Roy Hargrove weren't on this track, it would still be great. As it is, Hargrove really adds to the proceedings with his swirling trumpet lines that culminate with a tight musical break late in the song. Give Mayer a lot of credit: This isn't just one of those name-dropping cameos. He makes Hargrove an essential part of the song.

Play Clarity by John Mayer (featuring Roy Hargrove)

I wish I could say the same of "Zanzibar" by Billy Joel. Off his 1978 album 52nd Street (which takes it name from the street in New York City that once housed its greatest jazz clubs, including the legendary Birdland), Joel concocts one of his usual elaborate compositions that includes musical shifts, tempo changes and – best of all – a trumpet solo from one of the masters of the instrument, Freddie Hubbard.

Hubbard actually plays two solos on the song and they're really vintage – but each lasts about 30 seconds. You're left wanting so much more. A year earlier, Steely Dan had allowed jazz musicians like Wayne Shorter to really cut loose on Aja (1977), even if it meant songs that lasted eight minutes long. Joel (who was obviously emulating Donald Fagen and Walter Becker in some way with this album) could have followed suit by turning the 5:21 "Zanzibar" into a more epic piece. It certainly was strong enough. Besides, Columbia was never going to pick it as a single when they had the 1-2-3 punch of "Big Shot," "Honesty" and "My Life" to promote.

Play Zanzibar by Billy Joel (featuring Freddie Hubbard)

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