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Covert Chops: Jazz-Trained Indie Rockers

How Bon Iver, tUnE-yArDs & other young bands draw from jazz

Bon Iver

Here’s an extracurricular assignment: Point your nearest web browser to YouTube and seek out clips of a spring 2009 concert by the Memorial High School Jazz Ensemble, from Eau Claire, Wis. The footage is dim and wobbly, probably filmed by a dad with an iPhone, but what it shows is your prototypical varsity big band in semiformal attire, joined by a vocalist in dapper white. The guest singer is Justin Vernon, Eau Claire Class of 1999, better known elsewhere as the indie-rock troubadour Bon Iver. In one of the clips he’s singing Buddy Johnson’s “Since I Fell for You” over what sounds like a stock arrangement, shifting between his spectral falsetto and a barking chest voice, as if to achieve some Upper-Midwestern amalgam of Nina Simone and Ray Charles. It’s great.

And it wasn’t idle stunt programming: The concert had been set up to raise funds for a trip to New York City, where Memorial High was to compete in the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition. Vernon had personal experience on that front, as the guitarist in the school’s very first delegation to Essentially Ellington 10 years prior. It’s no wonder he sounds so casually in his element crooning standards-even if his own music bears no tangible relation to the standard songbook or, for that matter, any outright trace of jazz. His homecoming can be studied more carefully on a live recording of the show, A Decade With Duke, which was released later in 2009, earning notices around the blogosphere. “He’s just another failed jazz guitarist!” wrote NPR’s Patrick Jarenwattananon of Vernon, in a post titled “Bewitched, Bothered and Bon Iver-ed.” Less impishly, he suggested that Bon Iver was “proof … of a pet theory of mine: that the precepts of jazz education are secret ingredients in making possible many of today’s more musically rich rock and pop acts.”

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