Obed Calvaire, Bob Franceschini, Kevin Hays & Orlando Le Fleming – Whole Lotta Love: The Music of Led Zeppelin
(Chesky Records. Album review by John Bungey)
Jazz Led Zeppelin? Was this a bet dreamt up just before last orders? Or was it a record executive’s 4am brainstorm? On the face of it, the stentorian thrash of the 1970s hammers of the gods – all throbbing guitars and throbbing manhoods – has zero in common with the poetry of Miles and Monk.
But maybe it’s not so simple. I once met John Paul Jones, Zep bassist, who explained how pleased he was that on a good night the rhythm section swung. (You can hear it on, say, How Many More Times.) Certainly the late tub-thumper John Bonham had a way of playing around the beat – and that’s replicated by drummer Obed Calvaire here, albeit rather more delicately. Nonetheless, a jazz quartet has to prove that their take is more than a novelty record à la Dread Zeppelin’s dub spoofs.
Mostly this four succeed by adapting the songs to their own strengths. The least promising to translate are the headbangers. Dilute the crunching electric guitar riffs of Whole Lotta Love, Kashmir or Custard Pie and apart from some thin vocal melodies you’ve not a lot to work with. The quartet use various tactics to get round this: the riff in Whole Lotta Love is briefly reborn as Miles Davis’s So What; Custard Pie becomes a gospel-ish blues; on the nine-minute Kashmir saxophonist Bob Franceschini (of the Mike Stern Band) fashions a solo that heads farther out than anything Jimmy Page attempted.
With the teeth-loosening riff on Immigrant Song merely hinted at, the tune’s atmosphere completely changes. Suddenly a celebration of marauding Norsemen seems to be more about the sort of pensive Scandinavians you’d find in the control room at an ECM session.
But of course Zeppelin were not all sturm and thrash, and their subtler moments translate more easily. No Quarter is gently enigmatic with wispy saxophone slipping into free-ish territory over Kevin Hays‘s plangent piano chords. On Battle of Evermore the chiming mandolin is replaced by rippling piano while bass and saxophone take the parts originally sung by Robert Plant and Sandy Denny. It’s the loveliest piece here.
It helps, of course, that Franceschini and Hays are fluent, inventive soloists and when Zeppelin’s more brutish numbers threaten to run out of harmonic puff, they simply find some chords that suit and play something imaginative. The English double bassist – and former professional cricketer – Orlando Le Fleming anchors the tunes while supplying some lovely flourishes.
By choosing to make an album of heritage-rock covers the band also get round the problem that in 2021 an awful lot of the music-buying public are no longer familiar with the standards on which so many jazz musicians still base their sets. (Chesky Records have form in this: they put out a Jazz Side of the Moon album in 2008.) So whether this project started as a ruse to sell some jazz to unsuspecting long hairs, the quartet has come up with an inventive and, frankly, better than you’d expect set of covers. I think they won that bet.
Categories: Album review