Online Exclusive: Modern Jazz’s Foray Into Alternative Rock

Why bands like Nirvana, Radiohead and Soundgarden are providing material for today's jazz artists

In 1992 the King of Pop had his throne usurped from him by a flannel-clad garage band from Seattle when Nirvana’s album Nevermind surpassed Michael Jackson’s Dangerous on the Billboard charts. Though it is one of the highest selling and highest rated rock albums of all time, Nevermind somehow still fits into a rock and roll subgenre dubbed alternative rock. How can something that outsells Michael Jackson be considered an alternative? The answer lies in the treatment of the music. Rebelliousness is the central theme in alternative rock.

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Charlie Hunter
By John Abbott
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Radiohead
By John Spinks

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Alternative rock and its angry step-child, grunge, were a type of catharsis for an entire generation of suburban white kids that felt stifled by mediocrity. Newsweek captured the spirit of the music by concluding, “Grunge is what happens when children of divorce get their hands on guitars.” The success of Nirvana was more of an anomaly than calculated business move. In Kurt Cobain’s obituary, the New York Times acknowledged that his band “concocted a sound that was close to both the nihilistic fury of punk rock and the tunefulness of the Beatles. Nirvana’s popularity signaled the acceptability not only of grunge but also of many other bands once considered far too raw and scruffy for the mainstream.” This acceptance of an alternative brand of popular music opened the door for more than just a handful of bands from Seattle donning goatees. It may contradict common perceptions of the type of music that sells in high volume, but musicians managed to gain exposure to larger audiences while implementing an aura of defiance and pursuing highbrow artistic approaches. Compositional tactics that alternative rock musicians employed so as to approach pop music artfully included: romantic era melodic shape, complex harmony, non-traditional harmonic movement, and mixed rhythmic meter. Because of the defiant nature that the music celebrated, the perceived artistic quality the songs were obtaining, and the relative recognizability of the material to larger audiences, jazz musicians took notice of these alternative rockers.

Just over a year after Cobain swallowed a 12-gauge shotgun in his suburban Seattle garage the venerated jazz record label, Blue Note Records, released a compact disc that featured the eight-string guitarist, Charlie Hunter, presenting a jazz cover of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are.” The track starts out with a completely different Nirvana song than the one listed on the CD’s jacket. Hunter’s guitar has different tuning than a standard six-string guitar so he plays the iconic intro of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” up an octave from the original. After Hunter’s initial statement that the listener is about to hear something outside of the traditional jazz realm the band goes into a pseudo-swung Afro-Cuban-ish groove in 6/4. Hunter then states the theme of “Come As You Are.” Hunter’s rendition of Nirvana’s tune does not stray too far from the original melodic and harmonic material until the two-measure interlude Hunter adds to the end of the form. This short interlude that includes some seemingly complicated reharmonization is where Hunter seems to yell, “This may be a Nirvana tune but we play jazz!”

When I conducted a lengthy phone interview with Hunter some 15 years after this track was recorded, I asked him of his motivation for playing this tune. His answer took me by complete surprise. My initial reason for researching alternative rock moshing its way into modern jazz was to explore whether suburban-bred white jazz musicians held onto any vestiges of the angst and boredom that emerged during Generation X. The reasoning I got from Hunter was simple and honest. “It’s just in that jazz tradition of taking a popular song and making it a vehicle for improvisation,” Hunter confessed. One must understand that I absolutely worshipped this track when I was a sophomore in high school. I was playing in grunge rock garage bands modeled after an alternative aesthetic while simultaneously trying to figure out why jazz was capturing so much of my musical attention. For the 14-year-old me, Hunter’s version of “Come As You Are” worked on many levels. I heard a technical marvel I am still awed by wherein Hunter plays a bass line and solos at the same time on the same fret board. Technique aside, the main reason I adored this track so much is that it was directly combining my two favorite things at the time: jazz and Nirvana. For those 15 years I thought that Charlie Hunter was speaking to me directly by saying something along the lines of, “If this is how you feel, kid, you can make it jazz, too.” To hear Hunter declare that he had no connection to that type of music (or even liked it in the slightest) jarred loose a little piece of my musical foundation.

Hunter’s recollection did make perfect sense, however. Jazz musicians have long had success improvising over ultra-popular tunes. Examples that stand out to me are Louis Armstrong’s “When the Saints Go Marching In” and Miles Davis’ “Someday My Prince Will Come.” Easily recognizable songs have also been covered from non-popular arenas like the gospel church, as heard with Hank Jones’ “It’s Me, O Lord (Standin’ in the Need of Prayer)” and even American folk traditions like Bill Frisell’s rendition of “Oh, Shenandoah.” The bottom line is that Charlie Hunter broke my heart by admitting he was not a pissed-off teenager like I was, but his approach to playing a grunge tune with a jazz sensibility was an historically valid one.

Though moving units is likely not the main reason Hunter chose to improvise over a number one song, it must be addressed that there is a certain amount of commercial motivation behind such a decision if the song was not chosen purely as an emotional artistic expression. When I asked Hunter about the commercial success of his take on Nirvana’s hit song(s) he joked, “I’m sure whatever money they made on it [Hunter’s recording of “Come As You Are”] was not even enough for their [Nirvana’s] publishing company to go out to lunch on.” But he also remarked, “They [Blue Note Records] were the ones who really wanted me to do it [play “Come As You Are”] anyway.” Hunter made two marketing decisions, whether he thought of them that way or not. His first decision was to play a tune with a high degree of recognizability, therein gaining immediate common ground with a potential audience. His second decision was to appease his benefactor’s (Blue Note Records) demands by enabling them to market a song that had potential market crossover capability.

Adaptations of alternative rock songs in jazz are not always such a calculated move as Hunter’s. Travis Sullivan, who is the leader of the Bjorkestra, adores the music of his 18-piece jazz orchestra’s subject, Björk. While emerging on the New York City jazz scene in the late 1990s, Sullivan heard the Icelandic-born alternative-pop-rock icon’s “Hyper-Ballad” from her 1995 album release, Post. He immediately felt drawn to its expressive, modal melody. He also felt that the soft sheen of its harmonic texture lent itself well to jazz improvisation. He began playing this song in small groups but noticed a lot of Björk’s songs had counter-melodies that might fit well into a big band setting, a tradition from which he feels he has emerged. With “Hyper-Ballad” as a springboard, he plunged into Björk’s world of near-avant-garde pop-rock and adapted so many of her songs that he has now recorded two albums of her music in a big band jazz vain. Though he chose to adapt Björk’s music with a jazz sensibility for musical and personal reasons I would still argue that he has a certain amount of commercial motivation for choosing Björk’s music. He even candidly admitted, “If this [the Bjorkestra] was called the Travis Sullivan Big Band we wouldn’t be doing this interview right now.” This directly points to the way he has positioned himself. He wanted an outlet for his musical expression, chose Björk songs because he felt they lent themselves to the way he wanted to express his musical statement, and felt there would be more success if he branched-off Björk’s tree rather than plant a seed elsewhere.

As demonstrated by Sullivan’s choice, jazz musicians tend to draw from a certain type of alternative rock. Likely due to their perceived lack of highbrow aesthetics, alternative rockers with a more pop-oriented sound do not have much attention paid to them by serious-minded jazz musicians. Bands like Jane’s Addiction, the White Stripes, Bush and many others fall into this category. Jazz musicians, in general, draw from music with a modernist aesthetic, wherein complexity, innovation and total disregard for mass appeal allow from them to position themselves atop their own cultural hierarchy. One could point to examples of her fashion choices (both on and off stage), her choices for film acting and scoring, or the music videos that she stars in; but my favorite display of Björk’s flagrant modernism is that she has been in a long-standing domestic partnership with the multi-faceted avant-garde artist, Matthew Barney.

This appeal to modernism deftly explains why Radiohead has been such a hit with jazz musicians. And it is not the first two albums of Radiohead’s discography that draw the attention of jazz musicians: Pablo Honey and The Bends are way too poppy for the serious jazz musician’s taste. Though Charlie Hunter might find a creative way to cover “Creep,” which peaked at number 34 in the Billboard Hot 100, someone such as Brad Mehldau would hardly touch a song with such popularity. Mehldau, who has probably shone the brightest light on alternative rock for the modern jazz audience, chooses songs from Radiohead’s library that feature “odd” time signatures, complex harmonic structures, and gloomy moods.

Mehldau’s fourth album on a major label, entitled Art of the Trio, Vol. III—Songs, features Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film)” right at the pinnacle of the album’s programming. “Exit Music” (for short) is one of the lesser-known tracks from Radiohead’s adventurous and groundbreaking album OK Computer. The original version starts off with a somber, simply strummed acoustic guitar intro. The group’s lead singer, Thom Yorke, soon follows with a softly sung melody that borders on plagiarism of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata. After two verses, a chorus of seemingly synthesized voices enters and it conjures up notions of loneliness and death. It is not until over halfway through the song does the entire band join the reputedly deceased vocalist in dramatic fashion. Radiohead gets across a sentiment of darkness, borrows its melody from an undeniably Romantic source, and actually uses some neat harmonic tricks. Up to the point of Art of the Trio, Vol III, Mehldau had proven that he was a serious-minded musician and adored Romantic Era harmony. By covering “Exit Music” he was now showing that he could create a similar construct for jazz improvisation with a more contemporary piece of music.

I can only assume Mehldau feels some kind of connection to Radiohead’s later works as he has covered several of their tunes on many different records. Aside from the aforementioned, he has recorded and released versions of “Knives Out,” “Everything In Its Right Place” and “Paranoid Android” under his direction. And he has played even more of their catalog live. I can further deduce that Mehldau has an affinity for Radiohead’s music because he is a noted anglophile, and has covered a number of popular music artists’ songs that exemplify highbrow aesthetics like Paul Simon, Nick Drake and the Beatles.

Mehldau proved himself for many years as a bop-oriented “swinger.” Any knowledgeable jazz enthusiast should be able to listen to his earlier recordings and hear Thelonious Monk and Wynton Kelly as influences long before they erroneously cite a Bill Evans influence. But after Mehldau established that he swings as hard as any piano player around he did not want to be known as a bebop Nazi. He had a strong connection with a certain type of pop music and sought to be an aggressive populist or jazz relativist. Though incorporating alternative rock into his sets and recordings did not necessarily sit well with all of his listeners he said, “Pop tunes allow me to bridge the romantic-classical thing that I love with pop harmony-to tie it all together. It’s like this miniature thing, and it gets its idea across often with a simple melody, and yet there’s this illusion of endlessness.” In short, in the alternative rock music that Mehldau covers he finds something artistically deep enough for him to put it alongside western European art music. With his presentation of established alternative rock songs, Mehldau effectively straddles the line between presenting a commonality to his audience and expressing his artistic identity.

There are some in the modern jazz community who wish to adopt alternative rock on different terms than reworking established songs. Critic Nate Chinen concluded that jazz musicians incorporating an alternative rock sensibility in their original jazz compositions “may not cover the songs of indie-rock, but they’re immersed in its self-idealizing spirit.” Though the jazz trio the Bad Plus gained initial recognition for their covers of noisy bands like Nirvana, Black Sabbath and the Pixies, they have maintained their audience while moving on to play mostly original music. For bands that include aggressive rock elements into their own original jazz music it is energy and mood that connects the two differing musical styles. Chinen’s article goes on to quote the Bad Plus’ pianist, Ethan Iverson: “It [the Bad Plus’ music] ends up being about just communicating something with a lot of intensity.” Chinen adds that Iverson claims the Bad Plus derives its aesthetic in part from avant-garde jazz heroes like Ornette Coleman.

Avant-garde jazz’s freedom and alternative rock’s intensity are the engine driving Jim Black’s Alasnoaxis group. Black has been a preeminent force on the drum kit for much of 1990s and 2000s. Though he is widely known for his groove, he is perhaps at his most creative when playing music based on free improvisation. Alasnoaxis’s combination of improvisatory freedom and rhythmic constraint serve well together for Jim Black, in that he can play with a defiant, grungy energy and still play within metric parameters. I was able to chat with Jim Black for over an hour about this topic. We discussed what it was that pushed him to absorb the disobedient sound of grunge and incorporate it in his original compositions.

“What’s the best part about Soundgarden? The songs… The songwriting. The power and the attitude. The vibe and the mood. I think those things are the ones that most easily port over into another type of music,” Black opined. When he was talking about hearing Nirvana for the first time he thought to himself, “Look! This is an energy you don’t even know. Nor would you ever have a chance to play [this type of energy] with someone like, say, Tim Berne.” It should be noted that Berne is a musician that Black has played with very often. And Berne is among the more energetic improvisers in any genre. Black added, “I wanted something closer to that [grunge music] in ‘real time.’ Electric guitars with distortion; drums playing extremely loud beats of some sort.” Black knew he wanted to fit “grit” into his original music and that element of grunge rock was exactly what he felt his music needed. Elaborating on the formation of Alasnoaxis’ aesthetic he stated, “How do I fit ‘dirt’ into my music? I’ll tell you it certainly doesn’t work by making a rock tune and then having a great jazz solo on top of it.” His emphasis on jazz; not mine. By stating this he is emphasizing that his musical ethos revolves around group participation and collective improvisation rather than virtuostic individual efforts.

By being the first jazz musician to release an album of all original music with an indisputable grungy sound, Jim Black’s Alasnoaxis has influenced a number of younger jazz musicians. He showed them that there is a way to incorporate an alternative rock upbringing into heady modern jazz. When I asked the Irish-born bassist Simon Jermyn about his jazz group, Trot-A-Mouse, he spoke directly about how alternative rock and grunge bands influenced him as a teenager growing up in Dublin. He elaborated by saying, “Back beats, triadic harmony, distortion, singable melodies, these are definitely some elements that have attracted me… [to bands like] Nirvana, Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots.” There is also bassist Noah Jarrett (Keith Jarrett’s estranged son), who is in an astutely named band, the Inbetweens, that “belongs to a social network of musicians who filter jazz protocols through an indie-rock lens”. The name of the group was derived from the way they feel positioned between indie-rock and jazz. Though there are many more examples in the modern jazz scene, I would like to speak candidly of my own experience with this topic. There is a book of music that I have written called Atroefy. In the liner notes to my debut CD I reflected on how I wanted to play jazz but return to my roots by confessing, “I wanted to go back to being that suburban San Jose garage band teenager kicking over a mic stand during a screeching solo.” Suburban angst aside, I still approached this music from a jazz standpoint, especially when it came to choosing my band members. One can see that there are many branches stemming from a tree that Jim Black’s Alasnoaxis planted in 2000.

When musicians write original jazz compositions with a grungy tinge there can be identity problems. If there is a problem, it usually lies with the listener and not the composer. Simon Jermyn commented, “I don’t think about genre much at all [when writing music]. It comes out in a way that we are calling jazz mostly because improvisation is such a big component in what makes those compositions come alive.” But still, there are those who do not call this peculiar type of music jazz. Take the review jazz.com gave my record, Atroefy. It begins, “Let me be clear. I am not sure what to make of this music.” Right off the bat the reviewer is confronted with something that is calling itself jazz, but he has a problem with that. He concludes by saying, “It [Atroefy] is not for everyone and certainly falls outside the genre most of us call jazz, but the composition is interesting and the energy level is enviable, and the music tells a story.”

These are the kinds of problems that jazz musicians have always had when they’ve tried to push the envelope of how jazz is understood. For many jazz musicians, finding new ways of expressing themselves with jazz sensibilities is what makes jazz a part of their identity. Therefore, incorporating alternative rock aesthetics into the performer’s exploration of what jazz means also serves as an historically valid approach to jazz.

Since alternative rock captured the attention of America’s popular audience there have been many ways for jazz musicians to include elements of it into the ways we understand jazz. Some jazz musicians have used alternative rock songs purely as a vehicle for improvisation over subject matter the audience may recognize. Other jazz musicians have sought to inject the feeling, or mood of alternative rock into their own original jazz music as to express something more traditional treatments of jazz cannot. Though differing in their approach, both ways of using alternative rock in modern jazz are historically valid ways of playing jazz when we take into account that there are many different ways to understand the role of innovation and incorporation.

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