Sunday 22 April 2018

The enduring lure of the Great American Songbook

From Dylan to Joni Mitchell to the late George Michael, the back catalogue of popular songs and jazz standards from the first half of the 20th century continues to inspire

Labour of love: Dylan will leave his own mark on the Great American Songbook
Labour of love: Dylan will leave his own mark on the Great American Songbook
John Meagher

John Meagher

Two years ago, Bob Dylan released an album of songs originally recorded by Frank Sinatra. Shadows in the Night focused on Old Blue Eyes' more sombre songs from his so-called 'saloon albums' and was almost universally praised. Dylan had successfully made the songs his own.

His next two projects - 2016's Fallen Angels and this year's triple album, Triplicate - all followed a similar template: take great songs from the past, most of them released before he brought out his first album in 1962, and give them your own unique interpretation.

On paper, it sounds like the work of someone who, at 75, has run out of original material, but when you listen to the albums, there's no mistaking them as anything other than labours of love from a man who has been leaving his own indelible songbook for over half a century.

On Triplicate, Dylan takes such special songs as Irving Berlin's 'How Deep is Your Ocean?' and Rodgers and Hammerstein's 'This Nearly Was Mine' and imbues them with great compassion and understanding.

While it's almost certain that he could have done something special with them at any stage in his life, one senses that in the autumn of his years, he can do greater justice to them now than in the past.

Irish audiences got to see for themselves just what these songs mean when Dylan called to Dublin's 3Arena on Thursday and he sprinkled his set with some of these great standards. After blazing a trail for much of his career, it seems only fitting that he is so keen to pay homage to songs that have endured for decades.

And he's not the only one. The old and great songs, and putting your own spin on them, has been done for years, and often by people who are, themselves, giants of song.

Take Joni Mitchell. In 2000, her Both Sides Now album saw her offering string-drenched covers of such material as 'At Last', the 1941 standard famously covered by Etta James in 1969, 'Stormy Weather', a 1933 song long associated with Harlem's Cotton Club, and Rodgers and Hart's 1937 show tune, 'I Wish I Were in Love Again'.

Mitchell also revisited two of her own classics. 'Both Sides, Now' first appeared on her 1969 album, Clouds, and was given a lush re-imagining, while 'A Case of You', from her 1972 master-work Blue sounded even more compelling when sung by its far more mature writer, with all the hindsight that a longer life affords.

The use of two of her own greatest songs reminds us that while the Great American Songbook is a prescribed canon of popular songs and jazz standards chiefly recorded in the first half of the 20th century, in truth it has grown in the popular imagination to encompass more modern classics, too.

The late George Michael also found rich pickings in old standards and newer classics on Songs from the Last Century, released a couple of weeks before the start of the new millennium.

You'd want to be especially stony-hearted not to be charmed by his emotive reading of 'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face', penned by Ewan MacColl for future wife Peggy Seeger in 1957, but made very popular by Roberta Flack in 1972.

And his jazzy, big-band reworking of the Police's 'Roxanne' (surely part of any Great English Songbook?) made perfect sense when listened to in the context of that great 1930 tune 'Brother, Can You Spare Me a Dime?' It was an album that let Michael's humanity shine through, and probably came as a surprise to those who'd lost touch with a singer who had helped define the shape of 1980s commercial pop. More fool them.

Sinéad O'Connor showed that young artists can derive magic from the great songs of the past. She was in the very height of her fame in the early 1990s and would have been forgiven for seeking further chart glory.

Instead, her third album, Are You Not My Girl?, released in 1992, found her covering jazz standards, mostly, and bringing those remarkable vocals to songs from such people as Evelyn Danzig and Jack Segal (1959's 'Scarlet Ribbons') and Rodgers and Hart's 'Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered' from their 1940 musical, Pal Joey.

But it was her version of Lloyd Webber-Rice's theme for Evita, 'Don't Cry for Me Argentina', which saw O'Connor truly demonstrate how successfully she can embody another's song when given a chance. Her version is far superior, for instance, to Madonna's - but then, the Dubliner has always been the better singer.

Going further back in time, there's much to celebrate in Ringo Starr's first album after the Beatles' split. He had been overshadowed by three supremely talented bandmates, but his album of standards, 1970's Sentimental Journey, suggested that some of his abilities had lain dormant when sharing a recording studio with messrs Lennon, McCartney and Harrison.

Granted, he was never the best of singers - and Sentimental Journey, inspired by the songs family members used to love when he was growing up in Liverpool, will not convince anyone otherwise. But it's impossible to doubt his sincerity and the arrangements from such an eclectic cast as Beatles producer George Martin and Quincy Jones ensure that his versions of such fare as Hoagy Carmichael's 'Stardust' and Cole Porter's 'Night and Day' are worthy of reappraisal.

But not everyone who tackles such hefty songs gets away with it. Rod Stewart's five-part Great American Songbook series blows hot and cold, although the final album suggested he had found his feet and was Grammy-nominated.

And then there's Michael Bublé's career-spanning excursion through the jazz and swing eras. The crowd-pleasing showman can certainly sing - but his homage to Sinatra et al smacks of little more than high-end karaoke. And nobody could accuse Dylan, Mitchell, Michael, O'Connor - and even Starr - of that.

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