By writing and playing their own songs instead of relying on professional songwriters and session musicians, The Beatles revolutionised pop and rock music in the early 60s. Though their time in the spotlight was all too brief – after eight years at the top, they disbanded in 1970 – John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr ushered in the age of the self-sufficient, self-contained guitar-toting pop group. Such was their popularity and the power of their songs, however, that the group’s influence extended beyond into the realms of classical music, reggae and jazz. No one, it seemed, could escape the influence of The Beatles – and there are no shortage of jazz Beatles covers to prove that point.
The best Beatles jazz music offers some extraordinary versions of Fab Four songs, ranging from Grammy-winning guitar virtuoso George Benson’s remake of the iconic Abbey Road album to Chicago pianist Ramsey Lewis reworking some of The Beatles’ biggest hits into finger-clicking soul-jazz grooves. And who can forget jazz aristocrat Count Basie’s swinging big band reconfigurations of immortal Lennon and McCartney tunes? Neither were two of the hippest labels in jazz history, Blue Note and Verve, immune to the charms of Liverpool’s finest, as two compilations, Blue Note Plays The Beatles and Verve Plays The Beatles, demonstrate.
As a celebration of the relationship between The Beatles and jazz, we’ve picked some of the finest Beatles jazz albums out there. If we’ve missed any of your favourites, let us know in the comments section.
Listen to the Jazz Plays The Beatles playlist on Spotify, and scroll down to read our pick of the best jazz Beatles covers.
George Benson: The Other Side Of Abbey Road
Though it was producer Creed Taylor’s idea to have the Pittsburgh guitar heavyweight take on The Beatles’ Abbey Road album, noted arranger Don Sebesky was the project’s chief architect, providing inventive orchestrations and seamlessly combining songs to make striking medleys. Highlights include a bluesy after-hours vocal version of ‘Oh! Darling’, a super-funky ‘Come Together’ and a gorgeous medley that merges George Harrison’s profound ‘Something’ with Ringo’s playful ‘Octopus’s Garden’. Benson is accompanied by stellar sidemen, among them pianists Herbie Hancock and Bob James, plus trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.
Ramsey Lewis: Ramsey Lewis Plays The Beatles Songbook
Though they began in the late 50s, the Ramsey Lewis Trio didn’t get into their stride until the 60s, when they began racking up a string of hits. A pianist from Chicago, Lewis always had a penchant for jazzing-up Beatles hits – he scored a sizable smash with his infectious live take on ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ – seasoning Lennon and McCartney’s 1964 chart-topper with jazz, gospel and R&B flavours. As Ramsey Lewis Plays The Beatles Songbook reveals, Lewis also covered some of the more obscure tunes in The Beatles’ songbook, such as ‘Rocky Racoon’, ‘Sexy Sadie’ and ‘Cry Baby Cry’, all taken from the group’s “White Album”. Also listen out for his uniquely psychedelic version of ‘Blackbird’.
Count Basie: Basie’s Beatle Bag
Even an old-school swinger like Bill “Count” Basie couldn’t resist the allure of The Beatles. In 1966, at the age of 62, he recorded this album, the first of two tributes to the groups (the other was 1969’s Basie On The Beatles). With the help of Cuban arranger Chico O’Farrill, Basie serves up some energised big-band versions of classic Beatles’ hits (‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, ‘Help!’), along with tasteful renditions of album favourites (‘Michelle’, ‘Yesterday’) and concludes his homage with Leiber & Stoller’s ‘Kansas City’, which The Beatles recorded on their Beatles For Sale album.
Various artists: A Day In The Life: Impressions Of Pepper
This enterprising 2018 compilation offers a radical reimagining of The Beatles’ 1967 magnum opus, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, by some of contemporary jazz’s rising stars. Its contributors include award-winning drummers Antonio Sanchez and Makaya McCraven, plus MOBO-winner Shabaka Hutchings (with his group Shabaka And The Ancestors). They’re joined by guitarist Mary Halverson, harp virtuoso Brandee Younger, pianists Sullivan Fortner and Cameron Graves, bassist/composer Miles Mosley and trumpet star Keyon Harrold.
Various artists: The Beatles Tribute: An All-Star Jazz Celebration
For those who prefer a smoother variety of contemporary jazz, then this slick, mellow and stylish 1995 homage to The Beatles will do nicely. Among its contributing artists are George Benson (‘The Long And Winding Road’), Diana Krall (who serves up a sultry ‘And I Love Her’), Ramsey Lewis, Lee Ritenour, Tom Scott, McCoy Tyner (check out his ace version of ‘She’s Leaving Home’) and the smooth jazz group Spyro Gyra. Also listen out for two exquisite solo piano pieces by Chick Corea (‘Eleanor Rigby’) and Dave Grusin (‘Yesterday’).
Various artists: Blue Note Plays The Beatles
Blue Note’s archives were raided for this terrific 14-track tribute to The Beatles, which ranges from 60s swinging hard bop (saxophonist Stanley Turrentine’s ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’) and mellow soul jazz grooves (guitarist Grant Green’s ‘A Day In The Life’) to 90s Beatles interpretations by vocalist extraordinaire Bobby McFerrin (‘Drive My Car’) and guitar virtuoso Stanley Jordan (‘Eleanor Rigby’). Jazz luminaries Lee Morgan, Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson and Buddy Rich also contribute.
Various artists: Verve Plays The Beatles
Founded by producer Norman Granz in 1956, Verve is considered one of jazz’s premier record labels. This compilation of Beatles songs features artists from both Verve’s past and present rosters putting a unique jazz spin on music written by the group. Vocal highlights range from Diana Krall’s poignant ‘In My Life’ to Ella Fitzgerald’s ebullient ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, while impressive instrumental tracks come from Herbie Hancock (‘Norwegian Wood’), Gabor Szabo (‘Yesterday’), Quincy Jones (‘A Hard Day’s Night’) and Wes Montgomery (‘A Day In The Life’).
Looking for more? Discover the best Beatles covers of all time.