Ev’rybody wants to be a cat
Because a cat’s the only cat
Who knows where it’s at
While playin’ jazz you always has a welcome mat
‘Cause everybody digs a swingin’ cat

From the outset, it was inevitable that two of the major creative forces of the 20th Century would find a productive way to overlap and inspire each other. Jazz – with its boundless appetite for new sounds and original melodies – and Disney, that bottomless font of images, words and songs, churning out fresh musical gems with uncanny consistency over the years.

That Disney came of age at the end of the 1920s had a lot to do with it of course.  Back then, jazz and popular songs lived in close proximity; clarinets, trumpets and saxophones were all in their primacy. Ever since, one way or another, the sound, rhythms and feel of jazz have always informed Disney’s creations. But the focus ofthis collectionis not so much what the Magic Kingdom managed to do with jazz. It’s about what the jazz world has been able to do with the music of Disney.

Consider a brief history: in the decade following Disney’s first forays into creating new music – 1929 to ’39 – songs from the Studio’s Silly Symphony series, and full-length films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio, first made it on to the hit parade, interpreted by such bandleaders as Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, and Glenn Miller. More soundtracks followed – like those of Dumbo, Song of the South, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty –  introducing more Disney melodies into the popular songbook.

Through the ’40s and into the ’50s, as jazz modernized itself and became more of a soloist’s art, so the association broadened and became more instrumental. By the end of the ’60s jazzmen of all stripes – traditional and progressive – had embraced Disney music. Historic examples abound: pianist Dave Brubeck recorded Dave Digs Disney, an entire LP of Magic Kingdom melodies, in ’57; Louis Armstrong did the same with Disney Songs the Satchmo Way in ’68. Miles Davis and John Coltrane, both favoring waltz-time tunes, respectively recorded “Someday My Prince Will Come” (’61) and “Chim Chim Cher-ee” (’65); Coltrane played on both recordings in fact.

Looking back from our post-modern times, it’s worth pointing out how those notable performances – and countless other jazz interpretations of Disney material – were markedly free of irony, chosen and played with utter sincerity. The melodies were not simply kids’ stuff to these master improvisers (though if a song carried a certain sense of whimsy, rarely was it not exploited). As much as a Gershwin, Porter or Arlen tune from the Great American Songbook, many a Disney melody could serve as a platform for profound personal expression and complex, adult emotion.

Jump cut to a more self-aware age – 2009 to be exact –  when the sessions that produced the music for Everybody Wants to Be a Cat took place. Much musical progress has occurred, as the recordings herein make clear. Yet, equally evident is the unchanged respect the Disney tunes still command. Each has been explored in a distinctly individual way with an earnestness of intent, collectively yielding a heady musical mix.

Diverse, yes. But there’s a satisfying balance to the thirteen tracks on this collection that speaks to the care and planning that went into it –  a balance in the choice of songs (Disney classics with more contemporary gems), of styles (mainstream jazz with more edgy, experimental approaches), and of performers (jazz heavyweights with more recent arrivals).

Speaking of the players –  it’s exceedingly rare that one finds this range of talent on one jazz album. If one desired an accurate measure of today’s scene in all its flavors and formats, here it is on one disc.

Piano trios? Check out The Bad Plus having fun approaching Alan Menken’s “Gaston” from Beauty and the Beast with a vaudevillian punch-and-drive. Or Dave Brubeck, revisiting the same 3/4 melody (co-written by Frank Churchill and Larry Morey for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) that he recorded more than fifty years ago, with his signature spark and rhythmic inventiveness.

Horn players? Listen to saxophonist Joshua Redman work out the good-natured, free-wheeling vibe from Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend” from Toy Story, or the way that trumpeter Mark Rapp and his quartet transform Tim Rice and Elton John’s South African chorale number “Circle of Life” from The Lion King into an affectionate, straight-outa-the-’70s anthem. Or Roy Hargrove‘s hardbop take of the title track of this collection – co-written by Floyd Huddleston and Al Rinker for The Aristocats – with a finger-snapping groove reminiscent of Blue Note Records in its late ’50s heyday.

Singers? Dig Dianne Reeves‘s fluid confidence and late-night, soulful flavor in her delivery of Sonny Burke and Peggy Lee’s “He’s a Tramp” from Lady and the Tramp.  Or chanteuse Roberta Gambarini – accompanied by Dave Brubeck – with that full, stunning, expressive clarity of her voice on Sammy Fain and Bob Hilliard’s theme from Alice in Wonderland. Or the young singer and scatter extraordinaire Nikki Yanofsky, all of 15 when she recorded this strident, horn-driven rendition of Robert and Richard Sherman’s “It’s a Small World” – channeling the joy and power of early ’60s Ella Fitzgerald.

Other noteworthy soloists and up-and-coming talent? There’s bassist Esperanza Spalding, turning the well-known Sherman Brothers’melody “Chim Chim Cheree” from Mary Poppins into a study in mood and sway, blending multi-tracked vocalizations and an arco solo, with Gil Goldstein’s pointillist piano and bittersweet accordion. Regina Carter combines her violin, an accordion and a West African kora to reimagine Brad Paisley’s “Find Yourself” from Cars as a lilting cross-cultural conversation. Israeli guitarist Gilad Hekselman – with his bright tone, and a clean, lyrical phrasing – offers propulsion without losing the poignancy of Alan Menken’s “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast. Another guitarist, another waltz and another Sherman Brothers classic: “Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag),” the haunting paean to human charity from Mary Poppins, gently fluctuates between minor and major keys, maintaining its distinctive delicacy in the hands of Kurt Rosenwinkel.  Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez – whose penchant for dissonance and other modern classical ideas is balanced by an acute understanding of the jazz piano tradition – pours all those influences into a giddy, humorous solo version of Terry Gilkyson’s “The Bare Necessities” from The Jungle Book.

It amounts to an intoxicating celebration of sound, lyric and melody that again proves how effectively these melodies serve as canvases for improvised magic. Disney and jazz? Like I said – they’re old friends. Two cats who were destined to swing together from the start.


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