It is no coincidence when jazz musicians speak of playing a song it means just that. Whether instrumental or with lyrics, songs taken from numerous backgrounds have long formed the backbone of standard repertoire for any jazz artist. Here are ten that have stood the test of time, according to musician Matt Littlewood.
My Favourite Things (Rodgers and Hammerstein): Jazz musicians have always taken great pleasure in taking popular songs and turning them into mediums for improvisation. Miles Davis did it throughout his career, from Disney’s ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’ to Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Ttime’. Originally from the musical ‘The Sound of Music’, singers such as Sarah Vaughn and Tony Bennett have performed this. However, it was saxophonist John Coltrane that took this to worldwide fame when he recorded it in 1961.
Summertime (George Gershwin): It is no surprise that this has become one of the most successful jazz songs of all time. Gershwin was an exceptional composer that wrote large numbers of songs that went on to be classics. Almost every jazz artist has performed this particular piece, and just when one has thought that a new version cannot be possible, someone comes up with a fresh and original way of approaching this wonderful piece.
Lush Life (Billy Strayhorn: One cannot make a list of jazz songs without including a song by Billy Strayhorn. A prolific songwriter, he spent more than three decades collaborating with Duke Ellington. Astonishingly only 16 at the point when the majority of this song was completed, this is a highly complex composition, and a deeply poignant look at life after a failed romance.
Body and Soul (Jonny Green): Despite being banned from the radio for over year for suggestive lyrics, ‘Body and Soul’ was one of the most popular songs in the 1930s and 40s. Another classic that was recorded by almost all of the biggest names in jazz, even today it has a special meaning as it was the last song ever recorded by the late Amy Winehouse in a duet with Tony Bennett.
My Funny Valentine (Rogers and Hart): Like many other of the songs on this list, ‘My Funny Valentine’ was originally a show tune from the Rogers and Hart musical ‘Babes in Arms’. Probably made most famous by Miles Davis’ haunting rendition on the album of the same name, this song has appeared in a staggering 1,300 albums since it was composed in 1937.
Love Dance (Ivan Lins): Brazilian composer Ivan Lins only composed this ballad in 1988, yet in this very short space of time, it has become one of the most re-recorded songs in musical history. With beautiful renditions from artists such as Sarah Vaughn and Nancy Wilson, it is a great song well worth taking the time to listen to the different interpretations.
Corcovado (Antonio Carlos Jobim): Jobim wrote so many brilliant Bossa Nova songs it is hard to pick a single one to listen to. Along with ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ and ‘Desafinado’, Corcovado, (referring to the famous mountain in Rio de Janeiro), is a hugely popular standard that has been performed by a diverse range of artists from Frank Sinatra to Art Garfunkel and Queen Latifah.
Mack the Knife (Kurt Weill): Jazz songs do not have to be highly complex to be successful among listeners and performers. This little gem originally appeared in Kurt Weill’s ‘Threepenny Opera’ and was catapulted to popular fame by both Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin during the 1950s. Ella Fitzgerald also earned herself a Grammy with it in a memorable live version in which she forgot the lyrics after the first verse and had to improvise.
Moondance (Van Morrison): This song has become such a popular standard for jazz vocalists and instrumentalists, it is often forgotten that is was actually written by Irish singer songwriter Van Morrison. He originally recorded it on his album ‘Moondance’ in 1970 and it quickly became a successful song that bridged both popular music and jazz.
The Nearness of You (Hoagy Carmichael): Another beautiful ballad from the 1940s, this song returned to public attention when it was recorded by Nora Jones on her Grammy winning album ‘Come Away With Me’. Another recent version worth listening to is performed by singer James Taylor on saxophonist Michael Brecker’s ballads album; a genuine masterpiece by a singer not usually associated with jazz.