Magical Mystery is nothing more than a period-piece curiosity.
According to producer Richard Bock’s liner notes, “Bud Shank is a master at creatively interpreting the Beatle music.” This is clearly P.R.-friendly hyperbole, and a quick listen reveals, if anything, the exact opposite to be true. While Shank and company (Chet Baker and Herb Ellis among the guilty parties) clearly think themselves above the music they are covering, they nonetheless make a commercially calculated go of it with a program that covers nearly all of the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. Strangely, they forgo the most melodically sound number on that album in “All You Need Is Love,” a song that no doubt could’ve been well-executed if not entirely convincing coming off a middle-aged couple’s hi-fi.
Decidedly a product of its time, Magical Mystery is yet another in a long, long, long (long, long, long…) line of Beatles-related cash-ins. By the late-‘60s, it was apparent that the Beatles weren’t going anywhere anytime soon and, to remain commercially viable, artists would be forced to add at least a handful of the group’s increasingly rich catalog to their repertoire. Some artists were better suited to this than others: Wilson Pickett’s “Hey Jude,” for example, surpasses the original in terms of cathartic release on the outro section, while Bing Crosby’s take is just bizarre, particularly with his “Little Drummer Boy”-esque vocals leading into the outro section. Those jazz players who did jump on the Beatles-bandwagon tended to be more commercial-leaning to begin with (see: Gábor Szabó’s late-‘60s Impulse! and Skye output and also Ramsey Lewis’ Mother Nature’s Son to name but two).
On an otherwise mediocre album, “Flying” stands out as a highlight and one of the better Beatles covers in terms of pure psychedelic reinterpretation. It helps that the song’s melody is rather straightforward, harmony-wise, and designed for interesting chord layering. But it’s the extra flourishes throughout that make this a clear crowning achievement. Swirling flute trills bleed in and out of the mix, creating an aurally disorienting effect, the listener anchored solely by a familiarity with the original melody. Sadly, the solo section is played rather straight with little imagination, causing it to fall back in line with the remainder of an album over-reliant on a strict adherence to the established melody to the point of coming off as remedial (see: “I Am The Walrus”). In keeping with the psychedelic cash-ins of the time, Magical Mystery deploys a series of comical interstitial sections clearly designed to come off as “trippy,” but ultimately falling way short.
It’s clear that Shank and company feel most comfortable with the material playing over the changes (see: “Your Mother Should Know” and “The Fool on the Hill”). Freed from the shackles of pop melody, they engage in a full range of jazz vocabulary, primarily of the post-bop/cool jazz idiom. This being a West Coast session (just check the credits for further evidence, if Shank’s name on the marquee weren’t enough), it’s not surprising that the players stick to a more commercially appealing approach that more often than not winds up feeling staid and lifeless. Further complicating and confusing matters, the B side is made up primarily of other pop hits of the period, all given what essentially amounts to a smooth jazz treatment, complete with backing choral vocals and Martin Denny-esque flourishes courtesy of arranger Bob Florence.
In all, Magical Mystery is nothing more than a period-piece curiosity, one that largely fails to connect with modern listeners not wholly enamored of the waning years of cool jazz and a penchant for Beatles’ tunes. It’s easy to criticize from a distance—and Magical Mystery is an easy target—but even viewed within its proper context, the album feels like a halfhearted attempt to capture a (slightly) younger demographic while attempting to bridge the generation gap that so divided the country in the late-1960s. Shank and company were better served sticking to the post-bop/cool jazz of their formative years a decade prior.