While caught up in a pedestrian jam I overheard part of a conversation between two young women just in front of me.
First Woman: “What, the decent one or the shit one?”
Second Woman: “No, the decent one! The shit one was weird.”
I was intrigued by this snippet and curious to know what the subject of their summary judgement might be. I resolved to follow them and find out more but they turned abruptly into a branch of Accessorize and my resolve disappeared leaving me to guess whether the subject was a man, a dress, a cell phone or a sandwich; and whether she meant it was shit because it was weird; and what exactly had she meant by “weird”. Did she mean simply ‘different’ or did she mean ‘strange’ – as in unpalatable?
I continued to speculate as I made my way to one of the two remaining CD shops in town in pursuit of yet another overheard snippet: part of a recording of My Funny Valentine as performed by Gerry Mulligan with Chet Baker. If my younger self could see me doing this he would be incredulous. When I first heard the song, it being of my parents’ generation, I took no notice of it. Bereft of historical references, I assumed that all songs were inseparable from the artists who recorded them as hits. It followed that adulation of the artist was a prerequisite for my liking the song and, in this case, the artist was some old geezer who did not feature in the Top Twenty list.
Because of my conviction that song and artist were inseparable, it also followed that any cover version was bound to be inferior to the original. Yet I was always amazed that there was no shortage of cover versions around. The BBC had a pop orchestra which broadcast live versions of hit numbers to an audience of disparaging, disappointed youths. Woolworth’s sold recorded covers of the hits at prices lower than the authentic ones - though I never knew anyone who bought them. They just weren’t cool.
But I have come to realise that not all covers may be dismissed as worthless: even shameless, blatant imitation requires skilful mimicry. When Etta James died a few weeks ago a minor controversy was rekindled: should she, rather than Beyonce, have been invited to sing At Last for President and Mrs. Obama at the inauguration? It may be a moot point, since Etta’s version was itself a cover of the original, but Beyonce’s version was a very skilful copy of Etta’s: it’s just that it could have been more interesting if she had given it her own interpretation.
Covers which have been musically re-interpreted benefit from fresh creative input. When musicians break the link between song and singer, deconstructing a melody and exploring ways to enhance it, they create something original upon the framework of what went before. Mix in some improvisation and it all starts to add up to jazz. The better the framework, the more creative scope there is – and there are some very good frameworks out there. My Funny Valentine, as it turns out, is one of them. It may not be among the top three of all time (Summertime, My Way and Yesterday – in case you wanted to know) but it will probably be number one for a while on Tuesday.
I couldn’t find a recording in the shop - I was unsure which one I had heard anyway – so I asked the assistant. He politely declared it to be “not something we would stock.” I guess I will have to research and buy it online. Meanwhile, in case you’re wondering what the fuss is about, here is a version of it - a decent one.