January 20, 2020. The Pretenders’ front woman Chrissie Hynde has cut her first jazz album, Valve Bone Woe, which includes 14 songs and some that weren't originally composed as jazz tunes—interpretations of music first conceived by pop-rock icons Brian Wilson, Nick Drake, and The Kinks’ Ray Davies sit right alongside takes on Hoagy Carmichael, Mingus, and Coltrane.
All are given something close enough to qualify as jazz treatment, but, as a whole, this is as genre-fluid and idiosyncratic a collection of jazz and pop covers as any in recent memory.
The opener is a relatively faithful take on “How Glad I Am,” a bluesy pop tune written in the classic Motown ¾ time, popularized by Nancy Wilson in the sixties.
Hynde’s backing, The Valve Bone Woe Ensemble, adds a New Orleans-style horn accompaniment, yet there’s something about the particular combination of elements here—Hynde’s earthy alto, the medium-tempo waltz, the occasional Stevie Ray Vaughan-like electric guitar riffs—that makes it feel more like the closing-time number at an East Texas ice house than anything with Detroit origins.
Just as Hynde does her own unique thing with the tune popularized by Nancy Wilson, so she does with numbers most associated with Dinah Washington and Nina Simone.
Hynde’s “Wild is the Wind” is the type of contemporary retro-sounding tune that might be commissioned by HBO to promote a new mini-series set in the American South. Languid, belying something sinister, with hand-drumming and a single plaintive trumpet, the arrangement is slightly clichéd, but, then again, arrangements of this sort have been successful for a reason—they really are evocative even when arguably over-produced.
All of that really has little to do with Hynde, anyway, who is as good here as anywhere else on the record.
The “You Don’t Know What Love Is” that follows directly after is dreamlike—ethereal and purposely disorienting, with Hynde’s vocals mixed to sound somewhat distant, present but remote. Hynde is certainly no Nina Simone, nor is she Dinah Washington—and on the last two tunes mentioned, she doesn’t try to be. But she does do sultry intrigue just about as well as anyone. The latter cut especially deserves a place next to its antecedents—and maybe a place in a future James Bond soundtrack.
Very similar analysis applies to Hynde’s versions of Hoagy Carmichael’s “I Get Along without You Very Well (Except Sometimes) and Sinatra’s “I’m a Fool to Want You.” It’s clear that this album’s selections were not approached whimsically but based on an abiding love for the source material (you might even recall Hynde’s duet with Sinatra on 1994’s Duets II, Sintra’s final studio album).
Hynde’s takes on Nick Drake’s “River Man” and The Kinks’ “No Return” are slightly different stories, songs with which Hynde likely has more personal associations. Originally from Akron, Ohio, she moved to London as a young woman, which is where she would’ve internalized music by Drake and The Kinks’ Davies, whom she dated in the ’80s.
There’s something about her version of “River Man” here that, though slightly breathy, is calming and slightly addictive—on each listen, I wish irrationally for it not to end. Accompanied by woodwinds, piano, and a lush string arrangement, it’s a fine tribute to Drake, a cult favorite of the sensitive and the English and the English sensitive.
The arrangement of “No Return” presents the rare fusion of bossa nova and psychedelica. It’s trippy, but actually quite nice before it goes down a wormhole near the song’s end.
Takes on Coltrane’s “Naima,” Mingus’s “Meditation on a Pair of Wire Cutters” are notable here for being instrumental tracks on a vocalist’s album. They are palette-cleansers, the musical equivalent of sorbet between courses, and like elevator music if the elevators you’re riding were on Neptune.
The closer is “Que Reste-t’il De Nos Amours?" It’s a tune favored by legendary French New Wave director Francois Truffaut, and Hynde’s string-accompanied version here is enchanting, which may owe more to the inherent beauty of the French language than anything else.
Valve Bone Woe is in many ways a strange, incongruous album. For some, it will be as, Van Morrison recently said, “close enough for jazz;” others may find it jarring. Either way, Hynde deserves recognition for an audacious approach to her first jazz album. She takes some bold chances; some land, others don’t, and still others may prove to be tastes acquired over time.