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Various Artists - A Day In The Life Impressions Of Pepper Music Album Reviews

This version of Sgt Pepper’s treats the Beatles' originals like colorful clothes worn by today’s most electrifying jazz musicians, who give these old chestnuts a new body and vitality.

Your heroes have covered the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band since they first heard it. Just days after its release in the spring of 1967, Jimi Hendrix shocked a London crowd with the album’s opening theme with half of the Fab Four in attendance. Joe Cocker turned its affable second track, “With a Little Help from My Friends,” into soul-baring treacle a year later, while Elton John shouted out its lysergic third beauty, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” in the mid-1970s with John Lennon’s help. And so it goes down the tracklist and across generations and genres. At this point, it’s daunting to name an idea more passé than covering these songs, as omnipresent as oxygen or as eternal as Paul McCartney’s avuncular charm.


It’s a good thing, then, that A Day in the Life: Impressions of Pepper is not actually a Beatles cover album. Sure, its 13 tracks sync with the sequence of Sgt. Pepper’s, and you can hear traces of that totemic record in every piece here. But A Day in the Life is instead a full-length interpretation of Sgt. Pepper’s, rendered by some of the most captivating young musicians in the modern jazz orbit. Rather than offering obvious renditions of these standards, the likes of Makaya McCraven, Mary Halvorson, Shabaka Hutchings, and Sullivan Fortner reimagine them in the grandest jazz tradition—as fodder and grist, inspiration for making something else entirely. From sweeping solo piano vamps to cinematic takes bordering on post-rock, these versions treat the originals like colorful clothes worn by today’s most electrifying jazz musicians, who give these old chestnuts a new body and vitality.

Halvorson exemplifies the idea early “With a Little Help from My Friends.” She often plays the guitar in rhythmic and melodic tangles, so that a simply stated theme begins to fold onto itself until it shapes a dense thicket. As she mimics McCartney’s voice with her inimitable tone, the phrases split and tumble until she seems to lose the line. Each time it happens, though, drummer Tomas Fujiwara rushes in to reaffirm the shape. Likewise, harpist Brandee Younger passes on the obvious, harp-laced “She’s Leaving Home” for a complex, intimate arrangement of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” Using the original only as a suggestive framework, Younger turns her harp into the lace between darting flutes and skittering drums. Her take ferries mystery.

Surrounded by a lissome mix of vibraphone, electric guitar, and keyboard, McCraven powers through “Lucy” like he’s trying to find the peak for one of his fabled jam sessions, his kit an escape vehicle for his band’s collective transcendence. For his dazzling spin through “When I’m Sixty Four,” Fortner harnesses the same mix of erudition and élan heard on his tremendous work with Cécile McLorin Salvant. Recognizing that tabla and sitar are dated signifiers for rock bands hoping to convey a worldly sense of exotica, New York’s Onyx Collective reimagines the hovering drone of “Within You Without You” as a patchwork of astral synthesizers and distorted bass. Saxophonist Isaiah Barr toys with Lennon’s vocal line, slowing it down and examining its contours in search of more than novelty. It is hypnotic, beautiful, and—you wish—infinite.

The interpretive nature of A Day in the Life eclipses mere musical form, too, with some of the best pieces here working as emotional transformations—a risky but thrilling proposition for pieces so deeply lodged in our culture. After half a century, “Getting Better” has grown bathetic from the cheery ubiquity of television commercials and grocery-aisle soundtracks, the equivalent of a Lifetime movie playing on a loop in another room. So the savvy London trio Wildflower furrows its brow at McCartney’s wide-eyed grin, the muscle-bound rhythm section and Idris Rahman’s exasperated saxophone tone asking when, exactly, it all gets better. They turn the song inside out, looking for an answer that has yet to appear. And every time the melody of “Fixing a Hole” begins to flicker too brightly, pianist Cameron Graves stomps out the flame either with a pounding left hand that lands like heavy boots on concrete or discursive right-hand fantasies that spin like a ceiling fan. He wordlessly emphasizes the lyrics’ torment—the hell of other people, “the silly people [that] run around”—that is largely cloaked by the mirth of a harpsichord and Ringo’s swing.

It’s tempting to uphold A Day in the Life as some sort of yearbook or capstone achievement for this tremendously creative moment in jazz, a genre that’s been pronounced dead and then resurrected so many times it could be a major world religion. And in a sense, sure, it is: As with McCraven’s own Universal Beings, A Day in the Life does put many of the people that have made this loose movement so exciting in one breathless sequence. You could even imagine them all pasted onto the cover—Felix Pastorius in the place of Albert Einstein, Ravi Coltrane lording over it all like Edgar Allen Poe. Instead, this album is a wonderful expression of possibility. They take ownership of these standards—not as grails deserving fealty, but instead as another piece of the musical vernacular, motifs absorbed and repurposed inside an idiom they’ve helped invigorate.


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