Five great jazz takes on West Side Story, a musical score like no other

Bill King is a jazz columnist and co-host of Soul Nation on JAZZ.FM91.

I have the West Side Story score at home, and there are days when I’ll sit at the piano and slowly dig my way through the interludes, the crescendos, the epic orchestrations, and marvel at the grandiose sections — the sympathetic and emotional interplay between boy and girl.

There will never be a score like this. La La Land, for all its awards and acclaim, doesn’t have a melody or line of the same sheer brilliance as West Side Story. I have never heard one person recall a song from the score. With West Side Story, the songs are the story. They transport us from tenement house to playground, from fight scenes to the fragile human heart.

On the big screen, it was the presence of actress Natalie Wood that gave the musical and film an almost dreamlike quality. Wood’s grand beauty and vulnerability shone through. Still, it’s the music that endures. Below are five jazz takes on classic West Side Story songs that can still excite each new generation in experiencing this magnificent score.

Sarah Vaughan – I Feel Pretty (1963)

I was looking for material to produce vocalist Sophie Milman’s self-titled debut in 2004. Weekly, Milman would drop by my basement studio and collect a variety of recordings, among them Carmen McRae, Shirley Horn and Sarah Vaughan. Milman returned one day with Vaughan’s version of I Feel Pretty, drawn to its tempo changes and righteous swing. This was an easy call.

Recorded live at the famous Tivoli Gardens concert hall in Copenhagen, Vaughan’s version is among her best work of the ’60s. The heart and soul of the song remains fully intact, as does Vaughan’s unbridled energy and her will to swing. And with Quincy Jones in the mix, the audio capture and performances are, unsurprisingly, spot on.

Buddy Rich’s Swingin’ New Band –

West Side Story Medley (1969)

This tune captures Buddy Rich behind a small kit consisting of four drums. From the top, we see him lunge up the platform to the beautifully tuned kit, fierce and determined to roar — and that he does over the next 15 minutes of vintage Buddy Rich. He’s in full swing, sticks and fists a-flailing, from the virtuosic intro all the way to the final button.

And this is all about Rich, with a good portion of the tune given over to his masterful drumming. There’s little breathing room, other than a couple searing tenor sax solos featuring Toronto’s own Pat LaBarbera.

Overture is the closest we get to hearing excerpts of Leonard Bernstein’s original score. Something’s Coming is an up-tempo clash between drums and big bold brass and a finely delivered LaBarbera solo. The last five minutes are Rich’s to really sound off, though he’s always in perpetual motion. Of note: While the backing players’ eyes are glued to the charts in front of them, nowhere in sight of Rich is there a sheet of music. It’s all in the hands and head.

Oscar Peterson Trio – Tonight (1962)

When this was first released, Oscar Peterson took plenty flack from what critics called “gimmickry.” But for me, a 16-year-old budding jazz pianist, there was nothing comparable. The arrangements are dense, complex and crafted with care. There are moments of clever counterwork between bass and piano, and plenty of hardcore swing sections.

Tonight swings mightily right from the downbeat. Peterson twists the melody and trades lines with bassist Ray Brown as drummer Ed Thigpen lightly stabs and jostles the duo with his sympathetic brush work. And then there’s the big pay-off — chorus after chorus of burning swing, round after round of exuberantly shouted choruses, and finally, a stop-time ending.

June Garber – Cool (2008)

June and I had been talking about including a song from West Side Story in her 2008 album Here’s to You. The obvious choice, Somewhere, had been overdone by numerous artists. What hadn’t been worn to the bone? Cool!

The song arrives as a choreographed background stand-off between rival gangs. “Turn off the juice, boy! Go man, go! But not like a yo-yo schoolboy. Just play it cool, boy, real cool!”

The challenge? Condensing the Broadway orchestration down to size. Thankfully, we had saxophonist Mike Murley and trumpeter William Sperandei to rip it up on this song. The second challenge? The jazz! We accomplished that by adding a couple interludes and fierce improvisation.

Bill Charlap Trio – America (2004)

Bill Charlap and his side mates take a decidedly different approach to this beloved ensemble dance piece. This is the big choreographed sequence melted down to trio size, yet delivered with bubbling enthusiasm thanks to the interplay between the bass and drums at its base. Charlap keeps it light and airy, delivering the melody lines in unison octaves. The performance is given lots of space to breathe, and it’s very much a mirror image of its large orchestra brother — not duplicating note for note, but showing sheer reverence of the composer’s spirit.