A big-band cover of “Abbey Road” is inevitably quixotic. The original is one of the most popular and critically acclaimed records of all time: It uniquely captures the individual iconic identities of the Beatles at the height of the group's powers and popularity — a seamless production, ultimately building to an epoch farewell as a group. In the end, the question is not whether local saxophonist and bandleader Samson Trinh can equal the original with his new re-creation of the album, but how far, and how interestingly, it will fall short.
“I'm obsessed with the Beatles, and it's their best, tightest album,” he says, hovering over a beer at Mekong. He may be the only person in town with the connections, entrepreneurial spirit and blithe optimism to pull a project like this together.
The bandleader has assembled players he knows from his days as a student at Virginia Commonwealth University, including many from his band at the short-lived and fondly remembered Upper East Side Jazz Bar and Sports Lounge, as well as from his current group, the Mills Family Band. “I didn't just choose these people because they are my friends,” Trinh says, “but because I love their talent.”
Everything about the project — starting with the big band itself — is gloriously, lovingly miscast. What chance do even the most clever horn arrangements have of capturing the heavy metal thunder of “I Want You,” or bettering the polished patchwork of interwoven song fragments that dominate the album's second side suite? If the real Ray Charles sounded silly singing the treacley “Octopus's Garden,” what chance does sound-alike Adrian Duke have?
But in the end the recording is redeemed by the musicians' palpable sense of fun in Trinh's wild ride, committing to songs written before they were born and doing it without ironic restraint. The best pieces throughout are the ones that get out from the shadow of the original: that little bit of “Ticket to Ride” in “Come Together,” or the interjection of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” into “I Want You/She's So Heavy” or the all-instrumental “Here Comes the Sun King.” Perhaps the best thing on the record is what may be one of the Beatles' worst songs — the music-hall serial-killer ditty, “Maxwell's Silver Hammer.” With no need to honor the lame original, Trinh transforms it into a stop-and-go big-band romp.
“Plays Abbey Road” isn't “Abbey Road.” But one advantage of Trinh's version over the original: You can actually hear it performed live at Dogwood Dell on June 11.
There's more than a touch of commercial calculation in the project. People who would never listen to the original work of an unproven young arranger might be willing to check out what he did with a popular classic. “I kind of hope that this CD may reach the international level,” Trinh says. “Or at least get us invited to one of the Beatles festivals.” S
The Upper East Side Big Band will play “Abbey Road” at Dogwood Dell on June 11 at 8 p.m. Admission is free. For information on the band and the “Plays Abbey Road” CD, go to samsontrinh.com.