If anyone knows Black Sabbath’s work intimately it’s keyboardist and songwriter Adam Wakeman. His father Rick (of Yes fame) played keyboards on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. Sabbath must run in the family; since 2003, Adam Wakeman has toured with Sabbath and also worked closely with Ozzy writing his 2010 album Scream. During a lonely night at a hotel bar about seven years ago Wakeman came up with the idea to do an album of Sabbath jazz covers. That idea soon expanded to include a short comedy documentary a la Spinal Tap about how Sabbath stole all of their early material from a jazz pianist (watch it below). But it’s far from a musical joke: Jazz Sabbath, released as the coronavirus hobbled the globe, includes what this writer considers some of the finest Sabbath covers ever. Wakeman talked to Decibel about the project and how Ozzy surprised him with his Dad’s keyboard from the Sabbath Bloody Sabbath sessions.
Can you walk me through how this project came together?
It came to head while I was on a Black Sabbath tour in 2013. I’d been out for a drink with a friend and came back to the hotel and no one was at the bar. There was a piano in the corner. I grabbed another drink and sat in the corner and to amuse myself started playing improvised jazz versions of the set. That was it, really. I thought it was quite an idea. I also started thinking of this fictional character Milton Keanes, a jazz pianist who thought all his songs were robbed by Black Sabbath in the late 60s. Then I came up with the idea of a short documentary that had all sorts of celebrities talking about Jazz Sabbath. It seemed worth it to make the documentary and the album if one or two people got fooled (laughs). Fortunately, I wasn’t disappointed because a lot of people were confused!
If you look back at the earliest Sabbath stuff, particularly when Bill Ward was in the band, there is a heavy jazz undercurrent. The rhythm section played like a jazz band.
Bill’s drumming was so jazzy and so different from what a normal heavy drummer would do with those riffs which is why it’s so great. Sabbath was always the sum of the four parts. Geezer (Butler, bass) handles so many of these songs like a jazz player. All these different musical ideas made it what it was.
Did you talk to Tony or Geezer about this idea?
I kept it very much to myself for a while because I didn’t know if they would be ok with me doing it. I did eventually get Sharon (Osbourne’s) blessing and the band’s blessing. Some of the arrangements I wrote on an Ozzy tour two years ago. When Ozzy had to cancel a tour due to ill health I was able to start recording.
How did you decide what songs would work best as jazz arrangements?
I sat down at a piano and played some of them and chose the ones that came naturally as an arrangement or a melody. I tried “Paranoid” a few times and it was such a struggle to make it sound right. “Hand of Doom” worked well right away. Some of the arrangements are pretty out there but I always tried to get back to the theme.
One of the things I loved about the album is how you play with listener expectations and present songs completely different than what we might expect. I’m thinking in particular of the cover of “Iron Man.” Was that the intent or did that come along when you were improvising?
There are a lot of bands that have done jazz versions of songs but I wanted to be able to perform the songs as a trio. In the beginning, I thought about having horns or maybe I’ll hire a guitar player. I decided to keep it as a trio. I am not a trained jazz player so this is my take on jazz as opposed to traditional jazz, I’m a big fan of (jazz pianist) Monty Alexander who is a brilliant crossover player. He was an influence. Anything you try too hard to do doesn’t sound genuine so I tried to play these songs in the style that felt right to me.
Is there anything about Black Sabbath’s music that lends itself to jazz?
Well, we talked about the drums earlier. If you took Geezer and Bill out it would be a different band. You could still recognize it but the rhythm section is so unique. I was lucky enough to play with Bill in the early 2000s and he was just such a force. The thing that gets a little lost with musicians these days is that they practice so much and are so consistent with their technique. I’m not saying people shouldn’t rehearse but there is something about players from that era where it seemed like they were playing to the very edge of their ability. A lot of bands now are so well toured and rehearsed you sometimes lose a bit of the excitement.
One thing about the jazz and blues idiom is those improvisational elements and an expectation that part of the music is how a player copes with mistakes.
Absolutely. Jazz pushes people to the edge of their ability. That’s what a miss about music now, especially when I do a pop session A lot of that push to the end of the cliff is taken away. It’s cool when people can push out that little extra percent without falling over.
You have played with the real Black Sabbath. There have been so many Black Sabbath tributes and covers. Given your proximity to the band, how did you make sure the end product added to what Sabbath brought to the world?
I was frightened to start recording. But I wouldn’t put something out I wasn’t happy with. If you make music that you enjoy listening to that is half the battle. I make music primarily that I like listening to and that was the benchmark.
There are some amazing full circle components to this record. Your father played on what was Sabbath’s most progressive record and here you are doing something forward-thinking with the music.
That’s very kind of you to say. When I was writing the Scream album with Ozzy he dragged in an ARP 2600 which is a really old synthesizer. It said, “1976 Black Sabbath” on an old sticker. Ozzy said “I don’t know if it works” but that the last person to play on it was my father on “Sabbra Cadabra.” I told Ozzy we had to get it on the record. We got it to work long enough for a few tiny bits on the Scream album. That was definitely a nice full-circle album.
Have the members of Sabbath and your father all heard the record at this point?
Yes! I actually got an e-mail from Bill Ward’s assistant and he said Bill has seen the documentary. I’m sending the album to him tomorrow. I think I would have heard from lawyers by now if the rest of the band didn’t like it (laughs).
Were there any hopes making this that you would turn on Sabbath fans to jazz music?
It’s definitely a passion project. But I can’t help thinking there is such a misconception about heavy metal fans. People outside of metal think the only music metal fans listen to is metal. That’s so wrong. I don’t know anyone who just likes one genre of music. As much as this was a selfish project and there is comedy involved there is so much lost in modern music and jazz and metal actually go hand in hand.
When our current predicament hopefully ends is there any thought to playing these songs for an audience?
We were discussing that very option before the pandemic happened. Promoters in South America said the response to the album there was very strong and asked if I’d be interested in coming to Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. It’s something I’d love to take out on the road.
What has Black Sabbath meant to your life?
It’s changed my life. I played “Iron Man” in my school band when I was 13 years old. I never dreamed it would end up with me playing with the guys. And it’s lasted a long time; I’ve played all of the Sabbath shows since 2003. They’ve always been so gracious to me. They are gentlemen first and foremost.