The beloved songs from Disney films have inspired jazz musicians for years, with Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane all lending their unique talents to interpreting the classic tunes. A new label from the studio, Disney Pearl, has released the first volume in a series of recordings devoted to new interpretations of classic Disney melodies entitled EVERYBODY WANTS TO BE A CAT. The best tracks are those that veer the farthest from the original tune, only occasionally coming back to the well-known melody to give your ears something familiar to grab onto. But there are pleasures in every track on this surprisingly delightful disc.
The album title and the first track are taken from the delightful jazz-inflected 1970 animated feature THE ARISTOCATS. The song naturally lends itself to a swinging arrangement and Roy Hargrove on trumpet leads his quintet in a cool arrangement of the tune. Hargrove duets in unison with Justin Robinson’s alto saxophone on the main tune. Robinson and Hargrove, as well as Ameen Saleem’s bass, get a chance to show off their improvisational skills.
Newly crowned Grammy Award-winning Best New Artist Esperanza Spalding lends her distinctive vocals to the Oscar-winning “Chim Chim Cher-ee” from MARY POPPINS. From the rooftops of London, the delicate waltz is given a haunting rendition, embodied in the repeating piano figure in the accompaniment, and the music seems to come from a place where “there’s things ‘alf in shadow and ‘alfway in light.” It’s hard to work an accordion into a jazz arrangement successfully, but here it works.
Legendary pianist Dave Brubeck–who recorded an album of the studio’s songs, Dave Digs Disney, in 1957–revisits SNOW WHITE’s “Someday My Prince Will Come” in a new swinging waltz arrangement 54 years after his original hit. Regina Carter takes Brad Paisley’s country and western ballad “Find Yourself” from CARS and turns it into a lovely, personal statement. The beat gently grooves underneath as Carter’s violin and Gary Versace’s accordion (another successful usage of the instrument!) improvise along with Yacouba Sissoko on the kora, a 21-stringed African bridge-harp.
Joshua Redman’s tenor saxophone rendition of Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend In Me” from TOY STORY hews fairly close to the original tune. But since the song was written for Newman’s limited vocal range, the melody doesn’t offer Redman much of a chance to shine until the break, where his improvisational skills finally lend some sign of life to the arrangement before it returns to a rather staid closing. For such a lackluster tune, and with such solid support from Matt Penman and Gregory Hutchinson on bass and drums, I wish Redman had taken more risks.
“He’s a Tramp,” from LADY AND THE TRAMP, has inspired jazz vocalists for decades. But seldom has there been a sultry rendition quite like that of Dianne Reeves. Supported by a rock solid piano trio, Reeves’ vocals are ripe with sexuality while the trio smoothly grooves underneath her. Kurt Rosenwinkel’s guitar lends poignancy to MARY POPPINS’ classic “Feed the Birds,” while the piano, drums, and bass gently swing underneath. The cascading piano/guitar lines in the break are particularly effective.
One of the oddest song choices is the rousing “Gaston” from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. How does a jazz musician make sense of the song’s starts and stops? If you’re members of the group The Bad Plus, you ditch the waltz tempo and resort to organized chaos. While Ethan Iverson treats the melody as a piano concerto, with pounding, full-bodied chords, and pianistic flourishes, Reid Anderson and Dave King let the bass and drums create aleatoric improvisation underneath, bending and twisting the meter until you don’t know which way is up.
Roberta Gambarini teams up with The Dave Brubeck Trio for Sammy Fain and Bob Hilliard’s lovely title song from ALICE IN WONDERLAND. A poignant vocal and piano beginning leads into a swinging scat session with Brubeck’s inimitable piano style, Michael Moore’s steady walking bass and Randy Jones brush strokes on drums before returning to the sweet vocals at the end.
Alfredo Rodriguez turns THE JUNGLE BOOK’s “The Bare Necessities” into a breathtaking one-man show. Producer Quincy Jones helps layer Rodriguez’s unique percussion riffs into the piece. The percussive piano chord and interval clusters bring to mind the music of Thelonious Monk. As snatches of melody weave in and out, the notes cascade up and down before closing out the piece in a jaunty stride rendition of the tune.
Young Nikki Yanofsky brings surprising vocal chops to “It’s a Small World.” Set against a rousing big band arrangement, Yanofsky, who was only 15 when the album was recorded, shows great promise in her furious scat singing. Gilad Hekselman sets his guitar in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’s “Belle” against a soft bossa nova beat. Things get more lively in the break as Hekselman veers away from the Oscar-nominated tune and John Martin’s bass and Obed Calvaire’s drums and percussion are brought to the fore. The “beauty and the beast” melodic fragment that closes the track is a nice touch. Mark Rapp’s trumpet closes the album with THE LION KING’s “Circle of Life” turned into a grooving bit of jazz fusion.
What could have comes across as nothing more than a cheesy marketing gimmick is instead a first-rate jazz album. Producer Jason Olaine was given carte blanche in his choice of artists, and they, in turn, were allowed free reign in how they wanted to present the songs. Disney purists probably won’t appreciate hearing their favorite songs deconstructed. But for anybody who wants to be a cat, this first volume of Disney jazz is one cool listen.