Charles Earland: Black Talk!

[28 February 2007]

By Jon Ross

Charles Earland’s Pop Interpretation Methodology

Jazz is, and always has been, a music fueled by other people’s compositions. Time-tested standards like “Summertime” and “Autumn Leaves” provide a fertile ground for improvisers. Contributions from jazz luminaries make up another large portion of cover material. But with Black Talk!, organist Charles Earland rejects this jazz hierarchy—the tradition of playing only serious or old tunes—and looks to a list with a more contemporary feel: the ‘60s popular music charts.

Black Talk!—a re-issue of Earland’s 1969 Prestige debut, re-mastered by Rudy Van Gelder—presents the organist’s approach to the cover song: superficial, passively involved, and full-out homage. Three tunes on the album each represent a different aspect of his cover strategy. Earland gives voice to his philosophy with the help of a sextet featuring Houston Person on tenor, trumpeter Virgil Jones, and guitarist Melvin Sparks.

“More Today than Yesterday” represents the first level of Earland’s interpretation: mimicry. The song was a hit in 1969 for the one-hit-wonders Spiral Starecase, and on Black Talk!, Earland plays the original melody pitch for pitch. He gives this poppy love song a standard reading: the tempo is the same, and the only huge difference is in the added solo sections. A short, atmospheric, muted trumpet improvisation introduces the song, and Earland enters with the melody. After nine minutes of solos, the melody comes back and the tune fades out. It’s a simple structure and is fairly easy to follow. 

If “Yesterday” represents the straight rendition—the equivalent of a Spiral Starecase cover band, instruments supplanting vocal lines—“Aquarius” is a step toward creativity. Originally featured in the 1967 musical Hair, “Aquarius” is a song about free love and embraces a communal, earthy feeling through its ensemble refrain.  Earland takes this idea of freedom, and starts the tune with a floating samba pattern alternated with a laid-back swing beat. The melody is harder to follow than on the original—a solo break is added in the middle of the chorus—but it’s still the same piece.

The most interesting tune on the release, the cover Earland was striving for, is the title track. “Black Talk”—a reworking of the 1966 Beatles song, “Eleanor Rigby”—is the record’s crowning achievement. It’s a full realization of the cover song as an homage to the original artist. In the end, Earland’s version is connected to the original only by feel. This hints at his respect for the Beatles. Instead of regurgitating a melody and adding a few solo breaks, he took the time to compose, to make something new.

On “Black Talk”, Earland focuses on a simple three-note theme, a succession of pitches not in the original. Off-beat bass drum hits wedded to a short hi-hat punch—boom-ti boom-ti boom-ti boom-ti—follows the opening phrase. This forward motion takes the idea of the marching string parts from “Eleanor Rigby”, and is the most apparent similarity. Beyond that, Earland leaves only the Beatles’ chord progression intact, opening each verse with a quick tremolo followed by a smooth descending melody.

The solo section is the first chance for his sidemen to stretch out, and Person, on tenor, takes the tune as his chance to shine. While Earland is a masterful accompanist—alternately providing gospel shout and short chordal bursts—and his solos are a study in laid-back style; he mostly creates atmosphere. Person, on the other hand, shouts his themes with a supported belly-tone. It’s the sound of a tree: tall, imposing and forceful. This tone—an aural perception of razor-cut cane, the harsh choke of a heavy, dry reed put into sound—is juxtaposed against Earland’s liquid tones. Person is the fire, the heat to Earland’s smooth lava flow.

It’s ironic that the best track on what is essentially a cover album is an interpretation that sounds almost nothing like the original. This wasn’t imitation, and it wasn’t plagiarism. This was taking an idea—a sound that reverberated with Earland—and transforming it to his own aesthetic. To Earland, creation, not imitation, was the highest form of flattery.

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