Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
Jimi Hendrix was only 27 when he died in 1970. Stop and ponder that for a second. An immense talent whose career was tragically cut short more than four decades ago, Hendrix continues to interest and influence musicians and music lovers, and for good reason. Although Hendrix was primarily a rocker, his music was really a fusion of rock, blues, soul, funk and jazz, and probably some other things, too.
“Little Wing” is a concise masterpiece, lasting less than two and a half minutes in its original studio version, which infuriatingly fades out during a guitar solo. It contains a few unmistakable guitar riffs, with a distinctive tone that Hendrix described as sounding like “jelly bread,” achieved by running the guitar through the Leslie speaker of an organ. The song is intense without being frantic, and at the same time is also ethereal and seductive. It also is very much of its time, with lyrics about “butterflies and zebras, and moonbeams and fairy tales.”
Not long after it was released, Derek and the Dominos included a cover of it on the classic Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, and it appears to be a particular favorite of Eric Clapton, who has covered it multiple times with multiple collaborators. But Clapton is far from the only great guitarist who has covered the song, most of whom seem to hew fairly faithfully to the original.
We will not be investigating these versions here.
“Fusion” is sort of a dirty word in music criticism, often used as a shorthand for something that tries to mix many genres and fails in all of them. But when done well, like Hendrix did, it can result in a synthesis that elevates the source material. These five covers each use “Little Wing” as a vehicle to create a fusion of different musical vocabularies.
The Gil Evans Orchestra – Little Wing (Jimi Hendrix cover)
Gil Evans, a pianist and composer, is probably best known as an arranger, particularly for Miles Davis, after whom Evans named a son. Although his career was mostly in the jazz world, Evans’ musical tastes were broad, and he was a particularly big fan of Hendrix. In fact, Hendrix was scheduled to record with a big band led by Evans, but Hendrix’s death prevented this intriguing combination. Instead, in 1975, Evans released an album of Hendrix covers, all done with an unusual 19-piece big band. “Little Wing” wasn’t on the original album, but was added on later releases, and features a slightly different 17 piece group, including two French horn players, two tuba players and a bunch of synthesizers, along with vocals from trumpeter Hannibal Marvin Peterson. Much of the soloing is given to the brass and saxes, although guitarist Ryo Kawasaki is also allowed to shine. Primarily a jazz piece, Evans’ clever arrangement does not forget that the original was a rock song. The Gil Evans Orchestra also backed Sting on his excellent, more rock-oriented cover of “Little Wing,” featuring a great guitar solo by Hiram Bullock, a regular Evans collaborator and former member of David Letterman’s band.
The Corrs – Little Wing (Jimi Hendrix cover)
The Corrs, an Irish band made up of three sisters and a brother, create a different kind of fusion from Evans, mixing pop, folk and Celtic music. In 1999, they appeared on MTV’s Unplugged, performing a set that included originals, traditional Irish songs, and several covers. They did versions of songs by R.E.M., Fleetwood Mac, and Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott, as well as this pretty version of “Little Wing.” Not surprisingly, they turn it into a Celtic ballad, with soaring fiddle and the obligatory tin whistle.
Nigel Kennedy – Little Wing (Jimi Hendrix cover)
If Gil Evans can turn the two-and-a-half-minute rock song into a six-and-a-half-minute jazz-fusion piece, why can’t classical violinist Nigel Kennedy turn it into an eleven-minute classical work? In addition to Kennedy, the band includes a number of rock and jazz-fusion musicians, including guitarist Doug Boyle (who has played with Robert Plant and The Rutles), guitarist John Etheridge of Soft Machine, and bassist Rory McFarlane, who has played with Richard Thompson and other members of the extended Fairport Convention family tree. Together they highlight the drama of the song, building from quiet and atmospheric to wild cacophony before ending peacefully.
Stanley Jordan and Armandinho – Little Wing (Jimi Hendrix cover)
Stanley Jordan is fusion incarnate. A Princeton music major, who studied with classical composer Milton Babbitt and computer music pioneer Paul Lansky, he burst on the music scene with a surprise performance at the Kool Jazz Festival in New York, and was the first artist signed by the rejuvenated Blue Note label. Never satisfied with being pigeonholed as a jazz musician, he had an early MTV hit with a cover of Michael Jackson’s “The Lady in My Life” and has also covered “Stairway to Heaven.” His albums that have included classical and world music, and recently he has been appearing with jam bands, including Dave Matthews Band and Phil Lesh. He is best known for using the tapping technique, which allows him to play multiple parts at the same time. And, when he wants to, he can wail on the electric guitar as well as anyone.
Jordan is a big Hendrix fan, and often performs his songs. This breathtaking version of “Little Wing” was recorded in 2010 at the Phenix Jazz Festival in Brazil, along with Armandinho, a Brazilian musician and composer, who is a genre mixer in his own right. Armandinho begins the performance on an electric bandolim, an 8 string traditional Brazilian instrument, and ends it shredding on a guitarra baiana, an electric 5 string mandolin, while Jordan taps away brilliantly.
The Berakah Project – Little Wing (Jimi Hendrix cover)
Getting together a group of musicians “from Jewish, Christian and Muslim heritage, all working together to make music dedicated to The Spirit of Peace” seems like a good idea in theory, and in practice, the Berakah Project also creates beautiful music. “Berakah” is an Arabic and Hebrew word meaning grace, blessings or forgiveness. The musicians are mostly London-based, and perform together to advance a positive mission of peace, diversity and co-existence. This version of “Little Wing,” powered by the soulful, stirring vocals of Scottish singer Chantal Duncan, is mostly a torchy jazz song, but with definite Middle Eastern flavors. Or “flavours,” if you prefer.
Bonus: Jimi Hendrix w/Elvin Bishop & Paul Butterfield – Little Wing
Not really a cover, but interesting nevertheless, this version of “Little Wing” was recorded on March 17, 1968 at a late night jam session at the Café Au Go Go in Greenwich Village. Musicians playing that night included Hendrix, Paul Butterfield, Mark Naftalin and Elvin Bishop of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, bassist Harvey Brooks, and drummers Buddy Miles and Philip Wilson. Does this kind of thing still happen? As befits the late hour and the unrehearsed nature of the session, it is a loose performance that starts off strong, then devolves into some bluesy noodling, as everybody gets a solo, before ending with a blistering guitar solo, that, again, perversely, fades into oblivion (which presumably didn’t happen live). No one seemed interested in singing, so we are left with a sometimes astonishng instrumental version, with Hendrix stretching out a bit more than on the original.