When Brad Mehldau performed Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film)” on 1998’s The Art of the Trio, Vol. 3: Songs, the idea of a harmonically adroit jazz pianist interpreting alt-rock was novel with a hint of gimmickry. Fast-forward through Greg Osby and Jason Moran reading Björk, the Bad Plus’ revamps of rock-radio standards and Gold Sounds, Cyrus Chestnut’s stab at Pavement’s hipster classics, and it seems more an extension of a tradition than kitsch, and historically akin to boppers blowing over the show tunes they grew up with.
One oft-overlooked jazzer who’s long had ears for pop and rock is Rachel Z, who’s covered material by artists ranging from Alanis Morissette (1998’s smooth-jazz outing Love is the Power) to Joni Mitchell (2002’s album-long tribute Moon at the Window), Soundgarden (2004’s Everlasting) and Nirvana (2005’s Grace). During the second set at a recent stand at Blues Alley supporting their new Savoy release, the Z-led Dept. of Good and Evil with drummer Bobbie Rae and bassist Maeve Royce interpreted songs by Jeff Buckley, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Joy Division and Neil Young. These interpretations, mixed around originals and standards like Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge,” indicated an organic progression of the jazz repertory, of principles of swing and improvisation being applied to popular melodies. What wasn’t signified was the popular belief that jazz musicians who take to contemporary songs instantly attract hordes of youthful, collegiate fans. There were 16 people in the house at the beginning of this set, only one or two appearing under 30.