The List: Five great takes on the American songbook

The American standard is always full of life and changing shape. Jazz masters Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Keith Jarrett transform show tunes and folk songs into radiant works of art. Dylan, Springsteen and, last week, Neil Young with his new record “Americana”, mine the mythical past to reinvent their own history. And thoughtful, intelligent singers – Bryan Ferry, Joni Mitchell, Willie Nelson – treasure standards for their wit and style. Here are five that work.

1. ‘Moon River’ by Brad Mehldau (1997)

Intensely romantic jazz pianist Mehldau, summoning up Debussy and Bartok more than Bill Evans and Art Tatum, repositions American standards with as much spaced-out elegance and controlled wildness as he does Radiohead and the Beatles – he sometimes lets his gorgeous piano trio version of Mercer and Mancini’s “Moon River” drift into the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence”, turning mere croon into uplifting incantation, discreetly disrupting music history.

2. ‘Night and Day’ by Everything But the Girl (1982)

EBTG's Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn

The usual suspects have sung Cole Porter’s exquisitely structured love ballad, following Fred Astaire’s sparkling 1932 original – from Frank, Bing and Doris through to Ringo, Rod and U2. For their debut single Hull’s EBTG, Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt, played it straight enough to not disturb Hull’s Larkin, but also detected the song is an uncanny kind of prayer as much as a snazzy show tune.

3. ‘New York, New York’ by Cat Power (2008)

How do you sing a big time classic owned by immutable legends Sinatra and Minnelli? By coming into the city from a completely different direction. Nervy Chan Marshall, aka Cat, who loves to turn songs inside out to get to their essence, finds the pumped-up confidence to take on “New York”, even as she takes sleepless cover in the downtown shadows before stealing away.

4. ‘Under My Skin’ by Neneh Cherry (1992)

Cherry’s contribution to the Aids fundraising LP Red Hot + Blue reflected the endless possibilities offered by the enduring standard. She took the Cole Porter song that Sinatra and Nelson Riddle turned into a blast and made it into edgy eulogy.

5. ‘King Kong Kitchee Kitchee Ki-Mi-O’ by Nick Cave (1996)

The satirical Scottish 16th-century folk song “Froggy Went A-Courtin” about a frog’s “moste strange wedding” has been done by Elvis, Dylan and Springsteen (and the Muppets) as if it’s a major source of all American pop. Cave’s nicely berserk, rechristened version grimly honours the rumour that after one hell of a party the frog and the mouse died a slow death in the belly of a big black snake.

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