Beck's skills as an arranger are convincing; though he can't do much with the...
Peter Marsh 2002
Jazz interpretations of pop songs were still a relatively fresh notion when Gordon Beck and chums recorded this set in 1967. Though much standard jazz repertoire was (and is) based on 30s and 40s pop songs, the advent of rock and roll with its emphasis on foursquare rhythm and unsophisticated harmony meant that few of its tunes were taken up by the jazzers; this was raw material unsuited to the extended harmony of bebop and its cousins.
It's unclear whether Beck was rising to a commercial or an artistic challenge when he arranged this selection of 60s pop toons, but the results justify what must have been a considerable effort. The leader's piano is crucial in delineating the often highly modified harmonies on tunes like "These Boots were made for Walking" (not the most obvious choice for a jazz rendering). Beck's splashy chords and octave runs are straight out of the Bill Evans book, but there's an intensity and drive to his solos that is very much his own, and his sound is much brighter, almost bell-like. He's joined here by John(ny) Mclaughlin in his pre fusion days, bassistJeff Clyneand drummer Tony Oxley. Oxley played with fellow Yorkshireman Mclaughlin on the latter's seminal Extrapolation a couple of years later and it's clear that the pair were building up a valuable association; Oxley's snare volleys and cymbal torrents are a perfect foil for Mclaughlin's fractured bop lines. Solos are kept short and sweet, redirecting the focus toward the arrangements rather than displays of individual virtuosity, though the leader's contributions are a bit overcooked at times.
Beck's skills as an arranger are convincing; though he can't do much with the apallingly trite "Up, Up and Away" (a song which would still sound twee in the hands of Motorhead) he manages wonders with many of the other pieces. The Who's "I Can See for Miles" moves from pensive balladry to ferocious swing - despite Beck's altered chords the melody shines through. It's best to try and forget the originals if possible and just enjoy this record on its own terms, difficult though it may be with songs like "Good Vibrations". Despite its obvious Carnaby Street/Julie Christie vibe, Experiments with Pops has a lot of fine moments from some extraordinary musicians and has much more going for it than historical importance.