Bob Dylan is widely regarded as one of the great English-language songwriters of the last half-century. So what happens when you play his music without lyrics. Isn’t it rather pointless?
Judging by this new album from Swedish guitarist Andreas Hourdakis, not at all! The point of this album is to remind the listener of the quality of Dylan’s musical composition by removing the ‘distraction’ of lyrics.
Far from just a jazz-themed Karaoke long-player, Señor is an entertaining re-imagining of the performer’s favourite Dylan cuts. The album demonstrates three things clearly: Dylan wrote some banging tunes; Hourdakis is an accomplished player; and done well, the jazz guitar trio still has the capacity to excite.
This trio is not the first to interpret Dylan’s work through jazz: Keith Jarrett in 1968 recorded a cover of My Back Pages and guitarists Jim Hall and Bill Frisell have also interpreted Dylan’s melodies. But this is, I believe, the first all-Dylan jazz album.
Andreas Hourdakis - well known to UK audiences as the guitarist in Magnus Öström’s band over four albums - released his first solo album In a Barn a couple of years ago and this new album came about when he started playing an instrumental cover of Señor (Tales of Yankee Power) from Dylan’s 1978 Street Legal album at gigs to support his debut.
Fast forward two years and that kernel of an idea has transformed into a full album.
His trio comprises Martin Höper on double bass and Ola Hultgren on drums and percussion. A bonus surprise on track six is an appearance by Swedish keyboardist Daniel Karlsson, himself an alumnus of Magnus Öström’s band who released his fourth album Ding Dong earlier this year.
The trio sound is conventional, with very little in the way of complex production to get in the way of Hourdakis' compositions. His guitar work is glacier-clear in tone and feel, the gentle fretwork and picking complementing the simplicity of Dylan’s original compositions.
Opener The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll is a lesson in jazz alchemy; the listener hears Hourdakis take the basic harmonic building blocks and transmute them into melodic gold. There are some wonderfully complex chords picked out which emphasise this is more than just a simple re-interpretation. Hourdakis’ stamp on Dylan’s original music is clearly and spectacularly embossed.
My Back Pages is languid, a track for a sunny afternoon by the river, Höper and Hultren punting the track along in the most subtle way, allowing Hourdakis to stretch out and enjoy what Dylan gave him to work with.
Track five Moonshiner is ballad-ish, with a touch of reverb adding a haunting lyrical quality to Hourdakis’ guitar, around which both Höper and Hultgren are careful to tread with unadorned accompaniment, save for a charmingly sensuous bass solo.
The addition of Karlsson keyboards on the penultimate track creates the strongest cut on the album, Political World.
The insistent thwack of Hultgren’s snare drum across the track opening is hypnotic, as Hourdakis and Karlsson play together then apart, creating a wonderfully pushy melody which drives the track along before a shift down in gear about two minutes in, where Höper and Hultgren create smooth sonic bedrock over which Hourdakis’ filigree playing exalts Dylan’s harmonies. The subtle chord shifts over a simple, repeated arpeggio four minutes in are a joy to which Karlsson’s intermittent, discordant interjections as the track ramps up create a chilling, abtuse counterpoint.
There are few fireworks on this album and that’s a good thing. Señor warms the listener without much effort, like a good spirit. It is straight, no chaser jazz guitar: flavoursome, smooth going down and with a wonderful feeling of comfort afterwards.
Swedish label Brus & Knaster is already on its way to becoming a maker’s mark of quality, contemporary European jazz. Señor reinforces that reputation.