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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Jazz Figures' New Releases Pay Tribute to a Maverick

Jazz players have always been able to build their own cities on top of old civilizations. Indeed, some of the great moments in jazz were incongruous double-deckers created for no particularly good reason: Sonny Rollins made gold out of ersatz cowboy songs on his "Way Out West'' album; Art Tatum found Xanadu in "Danny Boy,'' and Abbey Lincoln more recently found it in "Mr. Tambourine Man.''


And of course the durable melodies by America's popular-music composers writing for theater or film have become jazz's paving stones.


So it's curious that Burt Bacharach's popular songs from the '60s haven't -- until now -- been tapped very often by jazz performers. Bacharach, a composer of tunes that every one knows, like "A House Is Not a Home,'' "Close to You'' and "I Say a Little Prayer,'' is a maverick of the pop song.


He turned away from safe and pleasant conventions -- he is famous for writing phrases in odd time signatures -- as well as esoteric ones. (His love for singable melodies caused him as a young man to rebel against his composition teacher, Darius Milhaud.)


That should be enough for jazz's boundary breakers to admire him; but even Alec Wilder, in his classic study "American Popular Song: The Great Innovators,'' claimed that Bacharach was the only rock-era inheritor of Cole Porter's genius for the "natural phrase.''


Jazz is so disparate these days that perhaps Bacharach's two personalities -- rebel and background-music composer -- can only now be absorbed into the body of jazz standards. Two new recordings demonstrate the different ways Bacharach is perceived by jazz musicians.


One is a double CD on John Zorn's label, Tzadik, simply called "Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach.'' It features 20 Bacharach songs arranged and performed by a handful of New York's most experimental musicians, and some of the tunes are inarguably jazz. The other is by pianist McCoy Tyner -- one of jazz's greatest figures -- who pays solemn tribute on his new album, "What the World Needs Now Is ... The Music of Burt Bacharach'' (Impulse/GRP).


The songs Bacharach wrote with his lyricist, Hal David, were complete and precise moldings -- "mini-movies,'' he called them -- not just catchy tunes. They are episodic, with multiple key changes; the most famous versions, many of them sung by Dionne Warwick, have concise arrangements and drum patterns that danced with the melodies.


Most of all, the eccentric marks of a Bacharach piece are experiments with phrasing and meter, and the Tzadik album, full of improvisers who love such mazes, takes advantage of that tendency.


The Tyner-meets-Bacharach concept album will stop some jazz fans cold. On a certain level, Bacharach's songs feed into the culture of Muzak and suburban anomie; Tyner, who was the pianist in John Coltrane's quartet from 1960 to 1966, would seem to be about hammering African-derived rhythms and the openness of modal improvising.


It was right around the time of Coltrane's ascendancy that jazz and pop diverged. And it could be argued that it was the new, deeply African-American identity of Coltrane's music that eradicated the need for pop standards like Bacharach's in jazz.


But it's not that simple. Coltrane, like Tatum, Rollins and Ms. Lincoln, was one of the great omnivores of music, as proved by his 1960 version of the incongruously sunny and poppish "My Favorite Things,'' a recording on which Tyner played. And Bacharach, conversely, was an ardent student of jazz in the '40s and '50s. (It's hard to say what he retained of it, though; he told Melody Maker in 1964 that Thelonious Monk bored him.)


"What the World Needs Now,'' recorded with a jazz trio surrounded by an orchestra (it's similar to the setup he used on the 1976 album "Fly With the Wind.''), won't stand as one of Tyner's great successes. The album doesn't live up to its implied promise, which would be to recast Bacharach-David songs as cosmic jazz journeys, to turn suburb into galaxy.