Standards done right do a number of things: they show empathy (for someone else's work), they transport the listener to a style that may not obviously fit with the artist playing the piece. They also place an artist in a certain tradition whether slap dab bang in the middle or at an oblique angle to it. In their best contexts they add to the understanding of the artist in question, more about their world and their own sense of imagination beyond their own compositional geography.
So what's popular at the moment? Scanning the pages of marlbank this year you will find hundreds of standards mentioned. They don't just belong to the pages of the Real Book but come in many forms often standards simply as covers from another genre usually rock, pop or soul.
Increasingly we are seeing covers of material from later than the 1970s. It's quite a shift if you start your standards journey in the 1970s mainly because of the existence of jazz-rock which was still then relatively new. At a stroke you are drawing from a whole new genre that even a half century on sounds dramatically different to choosing a standard from the 1950s or 60s. ''Electric jazz'' for want of a better term is often harder to tackle. It isn't necessarily as song based. In fact cover something like 'Madagascar' by Joe Zawinul and you won't be bothering with lyrics at all. Songs as songs properly (emanating from tunes with lyrics) again belong more to the classic standards approach but not always. And then what about hip-hop? When Robert Glasper conjures J Dilla or anything from hip-hop (invented at the end of the 1970s) we're into a whole new area when the voice as spoken word narrator as rap is a world away from the popular song of Broadway.
Some things are cyclical. 'Take Five' as a classic instrumental seems to have gone out of fashion probably because there was a point in the 1990s when you would hear it everywhere. Although that does not stop some standards cropping up all the time. I have lost count of the number of times that I have heard Jobim's 'Wave' live. Oddly I hardly ever hear 'All the Things Your Are' live any more. There are some 976 versions of the Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II song out there according to the SecondhandSongs website.
- One of our favourite versions of 'All the Things You Are' performed by the Brad Mehldau trio (the Grenadier and Rossy combination) on 1999 Warners album Art of the Trio 4 - Back at the Vanguard.
Artists often deliberately pick less-known material by famous jazz icons from the past to cover because they know it's been done so many times before and listeners will be bored. Think about Tadd Dameron's 'Hot House' first recorded by Diz and Bird in 1945. There are more than 80 recordings of the piece, two even this year by the Simon Moullier Trio and the Bohuslän Big Band. But none at all until you go back to 2017.
Or what about Bill Evans' 'Peace Piece'? It's en vogue at the moment either as a contrafact (eg the opening of 'Fix It' on Lady Blackbird's Black Acid Soul) or a cover by an obscure band this year called Green House. Since the late-1950s when it was first performed and recorded there have been big gaps and between 2009 and 2014 we only know of four versions of the classic again by artists who are not that well-known – the Torino Guitar Quartet, Reija Lang Trio, Arnold Klos Trio and Francesco Branciamore.
When you go out to the clubs depending on where you go it's often a different choice of standards, ones that won't necessarily appear on the artist's next album. Some things work better live. Take Dr John's 'Such a Night' it has a certain joy to it that works in a bar where people are socialising. It appeared originally on 1973 album In the Right Place and there have been 16 versions in all since (at least three featuring the late Mac Rebennack himself), the last three years ago.
Even if the number of covers of a standard is small it can be so identifiable with an artist that the decision to cover say 'Happy People' (the Kenny Garrett number) means you have to deal not just with the piece itself but how people hear the tune from their relationship with the original. That is part of the fun and part of the allure of a standard. And it's also true that someone in the future can take on what is considered ''ownership'' of a standard in the sense of suddenly producing the best version even better than the original. Going back to Bill Evans take the Miles Davis piece 'Solar' when you think of the piece you generally think of the Evans version on Sunday at the Village Vanguard (1961).
Standards are part of the furniture of a jazz gig or recording. When new artists present a programme featuring only their own music that's a different kind of gig entirely. When they become better known of course their music does too. But with standards stripped away the artists lose a certain context although of course experienced listeners will immediately know or can make a good guess at what their influences and sound are anyway even when they are playing their own originals. It's rare you can't do that. The old adage there is nothing new under the sun, despite rampant ego and the feeling that you are the first person walking the earth, applies. Bill Evans, top. Photo: Craft