The first long-playing record I ever bought was Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. I got it from the music department at King's department store in Middletown, Connecticut. As a musical fetish object, it rates above the ticket stub from my first Springsteen show as well as the autographed Little Earthquakes booklet that Tori Amos signed for me. Odd that this is the only item in the list that has no direct physical connection to the artist. What the record does have is a chain of memories that mark the beginnings of my relationship to music, a relationship that shows no signs of diminishing.
So when somebody wants to take Elton's John's music on a trip through jazz-land, is there a look of concern on my face? Well, jazzification of popular music isn't exactly a new concept. From Trane's "My Favorite Things" all the way to the Tim Ries Rolling Stones Project, many far-reaching musical minds have made transformation work. Still, tiny wrinkles always cross my face when I hear about such projects. There's such a fine line between subtle and smarmy.
It turns out that I shouldn't have worried. Pietro Tonolo's Your Songs – The Music of Elton John doesn't exactly play it safe: Not with a backing group of Gil Goldstein (piano, keyboards, accordion), Steve Swallow (bass), and Paul Motian (drums). That…is one stellar lineup right there. I'm not as familiar with Tonolo's saxophone as I should be, but it turns out that he's played on a ton of records that I own.
This jazz mini-supergroup takes advantage of one of the strengths of Elton's music: Melody.
"Blue Eyes" opens the program with an extended muse on that melody. After Tonolo takes a solo, Swallow steps up expands on those ideas. All the while, Goldstein's piano delicately frames everything. As usual, Paul Motian adds exactly the right accents.
What's interesting about this record is that some of the arrangements shift around the traditional roles: "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word" has the melody line introduces by Swallow's bass (on top of some very cool accordion textures). The same motif is employed in "Your Song," with Goldstein's piano setting up Swallow's bass. Alternate tempos are used here and there as well, the snappy uptempo "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" being a fine example of the group stretching out the original tune.
Your Songs ends with two original compositions, penned by Tonolo. This is a bold move, allowing such direct contrast between the known and the brand new. Well, it actually works. It allows the group to both show off their chops as well as to celebrate melody for just a little while longer.
Hat's off to Pietro Tonolo. I've been made to think a little harder about music while revisiting some pop tunes that I've always loved — that I've had a relationship with for over thirty (gulp) years.