The Beauty of ‘Jazzing’ the Beatles

//Photo Courtesy of Fedor via Unsplash

In a recent Slate article, Fred Kaplan dismissed the jazz covers of Beatles songs that emerged near the peak of their popularity as “sad, boring, mercifully forgotten affairs.” While Kaplan is correct that many artists produced bland jazz covers to cash in on the Beatles’ popularity, his repudiation of all jazz Beatles covers from this era is ill-informed, ignoring the many jazz greats of the era who creatively interpreted the Fab Four.

Wes Montgomery’s 1967 rendition of “A Day In The Life” offers a perfect example of a Beatles cover that stays true to the original song while innovating in the realm of jazz. Montgomery replicates the small-group harmonies and personal feel of the Beatles’ performance despite the significant stylistic differences between the Beatles’ Brit-rock and Montgomery’s funk jazz fusion. Unsurprisingly, “Eleanor Rigby” from the same album won a Grammy Award.

Oscar Peterson beautifully intersperses virtuosic piano riffs with smooth yet simple cafe jazz on his 1969 release Motions & Emotions. The two Beatles covers on the album, “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby,” are no exceptions. Peterson crafts an impressive groove, channeling the melancholy of the original songs to produce covers that are as sentimental as they are catchy. The quartet that performs on the album is reminiscent of classic rock bands, with a keyboard, guitar, bass, and percussion, but Peterson’s orchestration inverts the original by putting the piano front and center, while the guitar provides background harmonies.

After their cover of “Day Tripper” helped lead their album Herb Alpert Presents to the top 10 of the US Billboard 200, Sergio Mendes & Brasil ‘66 covered “With a Little Help from my Friends.” These two covers cemented the band’s status as a bridge between the worlds of Brazilian jazz and the popular music of the Anglosphere. With their distinctive upbeat style, close vocal harmonies, and strong piano countermelodies, these covers offer a refreshing take on the originals while staying true to the Beatles feel. Following the success of these two Beatles jazz covers, the group received their first Grammy nomination with a rendition of “The Fool on the Hill.”

It would be remiss not to mention Nina Simone’s rendition of “Here Comes the Sun.” Simone’s pure and heart-wrenching vocals blend with her focused piano backing to produce a rendition that feels earnest in its hopefulness. The simplicity of the arrangement allows listeners to fully appreciate the beauty of Simone’s voice and George Harrison’s lyrics. More than anything, Simone’s version of “Here Comes the Sun” is effective in its emotional conveyance, truly making the listener feel that “it’s alright.”

Many jazz covers of the Beatles’ discography from the era of the British Invasion demonstrate real creativity and innovation. The positive critical reception and brilliant musicality displayed by covers from artists like Wes Montgomery, Oscar Peterson, Sergio Mendes, and Nina Simone deserves to be remembered and celebrated. Fans of jazz Beatles covers would do well to remember that great covers of the Fab Four have existed since the band released their debut album, and that jazz Beatles covers have displayed a full range of quality throughout the past decades.

// Robin Greene ’24 is a DJ and staff writer for The Jazz Spectrum. They host "A Hora da Bossa Nova" every Tuesday from 8 to 9 a.m.