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Radiohead: The New Standard Bearers?

Radiohead’s grand artistic statements have attracted many jazz musicians. The English quintet’s groundbreaking 1997 CD, OK Computer, found the band moving beyond past alt-rock anthems in favor of music that jettisoned the verse-chorus-bridge paradigm. When OK Computer’s even more abstract follow-up, Kid A, arrived in 2000, it still debuted at No. 1.

“It’s just really well-thought out music,” says saxophonist Chris Potter, who has been working on a version of Kid A’s “Morning Bell.” “There is always some kind of wrinkle in it that takes it out of the ordinary pop song. The records have a sound that is this definite kind of thing, manipulation of electronic signals and the rest. There’s a lot of serious thought that goes into it: they are the kind of tunes that can be taken away from their original context and have something to offer, which is pretty unusual.”

Brad Mehldau’s interpretation of Radiohead’s “Exit Music” on The Art of the Trio, Volume 3: Songs caught the attention of many jazz musicians; he then revisited it on Art of the Trio 4: Back at the Vanguard. “I came to Radiohead after hearing Brad Mehldau covering them,” the Bad Plus bassist Reid Anderson says. “At the time I really wasn’t checking out any pop music. Then I went home and my sister had OK Computer. At first I thought they sounded just like U2. Then I listened to it a few times and it completely overwhelmed me. It just opened up this whole world. I was like, ‘Wow, this is some incredible shit that I was completely oblivious to.’ It felt incredibly liberating when it happened.”

Other jazz artists who’ve recently recorded Radiohead songs include vocalist Ian Shaw (“The Tourist”), trumpeter Phil Grenadier (“Idioteque”), experimental NYC group Maroon (“The Tourist”), vocalist Helen Merrill (“You”) and pianist-vocalist Jamie Cullum (“High and Dry”). Meanwhile, Mehldau returned to Radiohead for “Paranoid Android” (2002’s Largo) and “Everything in Its Right Place” (2004’s Anything Goes). Classical pianist Christopher O’Riley even recorded True Love Waits, an entire album of solo-piano interpretations of Radiohead tunes.

“They are thoughtful music producers,” says Helen Merrill of the band. “All my life I have changed and done daring recordings and this is just another example of that. I think they are very inventive and very forward-looking and I like them a lot. I’m not the only jazz person who thinks that way either.”

Jamie Cullum has grown up with the band; he recalls playing “High and Dry” when he was 15 years old and trying to impress girls. The song is now a staple of his set and appears on 2003’s Pointless Nostalgic as well his American debut, Twentysomething. “It’s amazing how Jonny Greenwoods’ solo LP [Bodysong] doesn’t sound at all like Radiohead,” Cullum says. “It sounds like flecks and elements of the band, but Radiohead really is five people. That’s the kind of thing I try and foster in my own group. We’re a band. Radiohead is a band that has a sound unlike anyone else. I think these days originality is something that people respond to more than anything else.”

Reid Anderson has yet to record his own Radiohead song, but cites them as his favorite band. “One thing I look for in pop music is creativity in phrasing and structure,” he says. “But so much of pop music is based on these incredibly predictable structures, four bars of this, then four bars of that. It’s very symmetrical and predictable. Radiohead’s music is so far ahead of everyone else, beautiful-harmonically and melodically. It’s rich. The thing is, most of Radiohead’s music is more creative than the jazz musicians’ music.”