In 1968 Jazz Sabbath were considered to be at the forefront of the new English jazz movement. Their self-titled debut album would be released on 13 Feb 1970, but on Feb 12th founding member and pianist Milton Keanes was hospitalized with a massive heart attack; leaving him fighting for his life. The record company shelved the album and cancelled the scheduled release out of financial uncertainty of releasing a debut album from a band without it’s musical leader. When Milton was released from hospital in September 1970, he found out that a band from Birmingham, conveniently called Black Sabbath, had since released two albums containing so-called metal versions of his songs. His recalled albums had been destroyed in a warehouse fire in June 1970; leaving only a few bootleg tapes of Jazz Sabbath’s live performances as proof of existence. The master tapes, believed to be lost in the fire, were found last year. These songs will now finally be heard; proving that the heavy metal band worshipped by millions are in fact nothing more than musical charlatans, thieving the music from a bedridden, hospitalized genius…
Okay, that’s the crafted backstory, the attempt at creating and carrying on a joke, but such a joke is not needed at all. The truth is Jazz Sabbath is the brainchild of the touring keyboardist for Ozzy Osbourne/Black Sabbath. And the far more prosaic backstory is that he was jiving around on some Sabbath songs in a hotel foyer at the piano, taking Tony Iommi’s defining metal riffs and creating ivory-tinkled melodies from them.
Someone thought well enough and wise enough that this sort of silly but harmless, musically clever joke should be expanded and now we have a full album of Black Sabbath songs interpreted for piano trio.
If you remember the soul and funk, horn-drenched Brown Sabbath fiesta then you’ll already know the music translates well to genres outside and away from metal. If you know the songs well already then you’ll delight in hearing their signature parts delivered in a fresh, surprising way.
Fairies Wear Boots is our swinging opener, but fear not, there’s no Frank Bennett or Mike Flowers Pops-styled lounge crooner stepping up, just piano flourishes and jazzy drum fills. The song is a delightful dance. Evil Woman is next and here you could be forgiven for thinking you’re listening to Babylon Sistera-era Steely Dan, a wonderful Purdie Shuffle sitting underneath the delightful bounce of the piano.
Yes, it’s arguably a one-note joke, one trick again and again but the playing and the song selection is what makes this. Rat Salad, Bill Ward’s drum showcase from the Paranoid album was an overt demonstration of the drummer’s jazz chops so here it’s perfectly placed as real-time jazz. From that same classic album, Iron Man is turned into a Satie-like cascade where the turnaround from the guitar riff is trickled out in a way where you think of Jacques Loussier’s interpretations of Bach.
It’s all vintage Sabbath of course – so even casual fans of the metal gods will recognise these riffs-turned-into-jazz-motifs. Hand of Doom so brilliantly moving from cautious intro to a nice line in bop, just as its original song-source ratcheted up the tension from a creeping intro to a full blast of rock.
Changes takes us back to the Satie/Louissier style of piano, as you’d expect from the original.
It’s all vintage Sabbath, it doesn’t outstay it’s welcome – 40 minutes, and it’s expertly played. You could play this to the jazz fan in your life that has never listened to, liked or understood Sabbath. You could play this to the Sabbath fan in your life that has never listened to, liked or understood jazz. Both would be happy.
And my favourite thing about this isn’t the crafted backstory – it’s my imagined idea that the talented Sabbath alum Adam Wakeman goes home for a Sunday dinner and excitedly suggests his idea for an audacious – maybe even a bit crazy – piano-based project taking the songs of Black Sabbath and making them into jazz instrumentals.
His dad, Rick Wakeman, listens politely to the thought that it might be an audacious project, a bit out there and possibly a tough sell, maybe even a ludicrous concept. And then he laughs mightily as he says, “Son, hold my beer…”
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