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20 September 2007


Bg Porter

How many jazz musicians born after 1965 have actually watched an entire classic musical, or own any Original Broadway Cast recordings?

I didn't know that it was possible to get through any kind of music school without doing time in a pit orchestra -- I ended up doing three different productions of West Side Story, and have horrible memories of a solid nonth of Sondheim's Company (and now that you mention it, "The Ladies Who Lunch" is a great tune.)

I guess that I was assuming that the path to jazz musicianship is an academic one.


Neither of the schools I went to (McGill, NEC) had a music department that staged musicals. McGill's opera dept. did (controversially) stage a production of West Side Story, but none of the jazz majors played in the pit.

My involvement in musicals was all voluntary and extracurricular -- some students got together and staged Assassins in Montreal (which I arranged and conducted), and later, I was the music director for a different student group doing a Seven Deadly Sins/Mahagonny double-bill. But none of that is exactly Classic American Musical Theater.

Some of the players in Secret Society have regular B'way gigs (or sub for those who do), but these days that's more stuff like Jersey Boys, Xanadu, and Spamalot.

Anyway, the point was more that when someone like Sonny picked a song from South Pacific to play, it's presumably because he saw South Pacific of his own free will, or bought the cast record, or at minimum, heard the tune on the radio and liked it -- because South Pacific was a massive hit and everyone knew it. So to Sonny, and to his audiences circa 1957, "Some Enchanted Evening" had a whole set of specific cultural associations -- associations that are largely lost on modern audiences.

PS I also think it's kind of curious that none of the tunes from West Side Story ever became jazz standards. Who calls "Maria" at a jam session?


This is really great.

I'm not sure, but I suspect that the aversion to irony is that many have come to associate it with a kind of arty emptiness, like it's the most postmoderny-postmodern thing you could do (with "postmodern" being used here as a pejorative). Of course, in the hands of a skilled practitioner, irony is not "only" a vehicle for humor or joy or beauty -- as has already been pointed out -- but also a great tool for social critique. By its very nature, irony forces you to think of things in relation to each other (e.g., "what do 14 minutes of intense modal jazz have to do with the Sound of Music?"). Also by nature, irony is multidimensional. So if you want to make art that is socially relevant and rewardingly complex, irony is just one of those things that you ought to have in your arsenal.

I think the reason TBP get shit for what they do is that we live in the wake of a period in which irony became "trendy" and "hip," both in the academy and in practice. Of course, the trendiness eventually made the term sort of meaningless in most contexts (cue this bit from Futurama). It may even be that "irony" became a knee-jerk critical position of sorts (at least that seemed to be the case in the literary world, where it was possible to justify the most tedious or predictable novel by calling it "ironic").

In their heydays artists like Coltrane and Rollins and all the rest were still dealing with a culture in which it was possible for people to go through life without ever becoming aware of irony as an artistic tool. People were more naive, so irony was more telling. I think the awareness is there now, but many people choose to reject it because of a feeling of oversaturation (and possibly the influence of world events). Unfortunately, it may be a human tendency to respond to one extreme by going to the other (in this case, some notion of artistic "earnestness" and authenticity).

That doesn't justify the irony-bashing, of course, and it doesn't make irony any less valuable as an artistic device (at least for those with the ears to hear it). For the record I think it's beyond ridiculous that folks get snooty about TBP's choice of covers (or, by extension, when folks get snooty about any jazz musician's interest in rock, or in any other music that isn't jazz).

Responding to the snootiness effectively is hard, though -- it's like talking to someone who doesn't believe in global warming.


I'm not the right person to speculate on the broad socio-cultural reasons why some jazzheads (have?) seem(ed?) to have it in for the Bad Plus, but I can tell my story, which I've been thinking about of late since I started reading (and loving) their blog. The first few times I heard TBP (around the time they first got a lot of press) I basically wrote them off and didn't really think about them for, gosh, a couple of years.

Needless to say, what I heard of TBP back when was first "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and then a while later "Iron Man". With "SMTS" I'm not certain what I thought at the time - I've since re-checked out their take on it and dug it - but it was probably a bad first impression, based solely on my extramusical associations with the song. As in: jazz guys of a certain generation decide they want to record a "rock" song, so of course they go and pick *that* one. It's unjustified bias on my part, but I might have had an entirely different reaction if it'd been, like, "Rape Me." And then I heard "Iron Man," which I didn't like then and still don't dig today. I'm not sure I can explain why, except that it just doesn't work very well for me - actually I think it's sort of uninteresting, which happens to me some of the time when jazz musicians go for contemporary rock music. (I love most of Brad Mehldau's Radiohead stuff but I've got a recording of an Elliott Smith song ["Bottle Up And Explode"?] that bored me except insofar as I thought "Wow, Mehldau sure can play his arpeggios.") Everybody seemed to get off on hearing the "Iron Man" riff played in a major key, but that's about the point where I tuned out the first time around.

That I have a more intimate relationship to rock music which I don't have to jazz "standards" undoubtedly has to do with this. When I hear Monk do the cubist stride all over "I'm Just a Gigolo" or whatever there isn't a part of me that shouts "Hey, don't mock my favorite song!" But there's more to it than that; to me there's a difference between finding a song choice funny, playing a song with humor, and making fun of the song you're playing. The first two I'm down with and the third I'm not, and (maybe I'm wrong) when Monk has his way with a treacly or goofy standard I hear the first two but not the last. Whereas I'm overly sensitive to the possibility that a jazz (or classical) musician is actually making fun of rock when they play it. I mean, I don't really have a relationship with "Iron Man" - it was recorded over a decade before I was born, it might not be one of my five favorite Sabbath songs, I try really hard not to listen to the lyrics - but I'm overly defensive of it to the extent that it seems like a standin for rock in general.

A lot of this skepticism went away when I heard some of TBP's original material, because it gave me a better context to understand what they were doing. Also, the Aphex Twin cover is killing. I'm still not completely on board with TBP these days, but that's about my relationship to their aesthetic as a group, and doesn't have anything to do with their take on rock music in particular; I didn't "trust" them as interpreters of rock songs until I'd gotten enough of their overall vibe to know the rock stuff wasn't just a gimmick.


Thanks to DJA for greatly improving upon the point about the ability to hear humor in music. It is really about whether people find it funny.

Quarterican's last sentence leads me to this question: why did many people have the reaction that TBP's covers of rock tunes are gimmicks, whereas I get the sense, at least, that most people do not think Brad Mehldau covering Radiohead is a gimmick. I wonder if it's just because TBP plays with humor (including the ironic kind) as a significant part of their musical language, even in their own tunes, while many jazz musicians, past and present, do not.


""why did many people have the reaction that TBP's covers of rock tunes are gimmicks, whereas I get the sense, at least, that most people do not think Brad Mehldau covering Radiohead is a gimmick.""

Perhaps they just don't think they [TBP covers] are very good?


msk -

Well, speaking again for myself, the first time I heard Mehldau play Radiohead, which was also the first time I heard him at all, back in '99 or '00 - "Exit Music (For a Film)" - what I heard was: "OK, he's got an arrangement of the head. I like his touch and the texture here. Cool. OK, now he's blowing over the changes. Neat. I like this guy. Are those still the changes to the song? Huh. Need to work on my ears. Anyway, cool." I recognized what he was doing as being standard practice jazz - he played the head, there were chords, and then he soloed on them. I knew at the time (and am much more aware now) that there's (much) more to jazz performance than the head-solos-head paradigm, but it's still what most jazz musicians, especially in the mainstream, do with their music.

Alternately, when I first heard "Iron Man" four or five years later I didn't heard head-solos-head I heard...however you'd describe their cover of "Iron Man"? They play the riffs over and over, there are interludes which I don't recall coming from the musical material of the original song, sometimes the pianist is only playing the riff, sometimes he's playing relatively simple motifs over it, a lot of the time he's playing very rapid highly chromatic lines at the top of the keyboard. Then they do it in major. Now if I'd gone on at that moment to hear more of their songs I would have realized: "Oh, they do stuff like this all the time! It's not just this one song, it's an integral part of their aesthetic!" But all I knew was "they're a jazz group, right, and a popular/mainstream one at that? I bet on their own songs they do the head-solos-head thing over changes, right? But this isn't that. So are they just goofing around? Bastards. Why 'Iron Man,' anyway? Because it's easy to make fun of? Whatever."

Now, I want to be clear here, I KNOW I WAS WRONG. I had prejudiced assumptions that a little further effort on my part would have indicated were misplaced and misinformed. I didn't put in the effort to learn more, and that's my bad, mea culpa, etc. But that's my attempt to explain why on first listen I didn't think Mehldau was goofing around and I thought The Bad Plus were having a laugh at someone's expense, probably mine.

In short, context is everything and just because I thought I understood the relevant context doesn't mean I actually did. I still don't *like* the "Iron Man" cover, but that's a different discussion and not IMO an interesting or important one.


This is a wonderful discussion. I don't really have much of use to add, beyond wondering if another watchword, "authenticity," is perhaps among the reasons that today's younger musicians are treated as suspect when covering possibly ironic material (and nothing more ironic than "Iron Man," literally). Almost as though folks are still wondering if TBP are really indie drones dressed up in jazz clothing. Listeners often seem to need some kind of bona fides, or else they fear they're being cheated, or at least misled. That somewhat misguided album of Pavement covers comes to mind. Not the best example, perhaps, but (despite is seeming at base like a marketing idea) did those guys come in for the same treatment? Was it dismissed as merely an ironic gesture? I don't actually know the answer to that, if one exists.

Anyway, thanks for the food for thought. Back to the Sudafed....


When I first heard TBP (probably SLTS or something else from Vistas) I thought "Well, they have a distinctive sound but overall I'm not sure about their chops. Hmm, the covers are kinda neat. I guess they're sort of an acoustic non-lyrics based rock group with jazz trio instrumentation. Weird."

After giving a full listen to Vistas and Give and starting to really groove to tunes like "Silence is the Question" or even "Dirty Blonde" I started to think "These guys do a great job of giving us a distincitive sound palette that they use to create unique and very enjoyable textures in their music. I like it a lot. I'm still not sure about their chops."

Then I got a copy of Suspicious Activity? (from iTunes, virus-free) and any questions about their level of musianship went out the window. These guys are good and I really enjoy listening to them. Then I saw them live in St. Louis and thought, "TBP is my new favorite group." Then I started re-listening to their earlier stuff and saw that I had misread some things and misunderstood other things. Throughout their body of work I now believe their musicianship, originality, and all out chops are in fact evident. I anxiously awaited Prog and was not at all dissappointed. The evolution of a TBP fan.

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