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Fight This Generation

A New Crop of Jazz Players Riff on Modern Rock With Surprising Results

CUTTING SOME SLACK: (clockwise from upper right) Cyrus Chestnut, James Carter, Ali Jackson, and Reginald Veal bring Pavement songs into the fakebook with their Gold Sounds album.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 1/4/2006

When Stephen Malkmus sang his song “Here” on Pavement’s 1992 album Slanted and Enchanted, it was about as far from jazz as you could imagine. The guitar, bass, and drums stumbled along at a reluctant tempo. Malkmus warbled in his strangled tenor, “I was dressed for success/ but success it never comes.” But there was something about the chord changes, descending further and further even as the lovely melody kept climbing, that gave the song its irresistible drama.

It’s that drama that the jazz quartet of James Carter, Cyrus Chestnut, Ali Jackson, and Reginald Veal seize upon when they tackle “Here” on Gold Sounds (Brown Brothers), their unlikely new album of Pavement covers. Chestnut, a Baltimore native who still keeps a part-time residence in town, opens the tune with an unaccompanied piano intro that heightens the vertigo of Malkmus’ descending chords. Only after drummer Jackson and bassist
Veal have joined in does Carter finally enter with Malkmus’ vocal melody, now played on a soprano sax. Carter has more control over his instrument than Malkmus, but he projects the same feeling of irrepressible hope struggling against crushing reality. Pavement created that struggle by threatening to fall apart; the jazz quartet complicates the harmonies with better and better playing. But the drama is the same.

Gold Sounds is part of a larger trend of translating alt-rock tunes into jazz arrangements. Pianist Brad Mehldau has recorded Radiohead songs on several albums. The Sameness of Difference (Hyena), the new album from the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, features tunes
by the Flaming Lips and Björk. The Bad Plus has recorded numbers
by Blondie, Aphex Twin, and Nirvana. Herbie Hancock has recorded tracks by Nirvana, U2, and Trey Anastasio.

Jazz—sticking doggedly to a catalog of pre-Beatles show tunes, swing classics, and bop favorites—certainly needs an influx of new repertoire. Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” and Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” are great material, but when they first entered the jazz canon, they were contemporary pop hits. Jazz soloists could improvise on them, confident the original melodies were so familiar that the variations would make sense and command attention. If today’s jazz is to play with the audience’s memories in the same way, it needs to start with raw materials that are just as fondly familiar. It needs to replace the old history lessons with recent rock, R&B, country, and hip-hop melodies that spark recognition when first stated and surprise when turned inside out through improvisation.

But adapting a Pavement song to a jazz arrangement is not the same as adapting an Ellington tune. The former’s melodies may be as strong as the latter’s, but the chord changes are likely to be jarring rather than elegant, the rhythms straight rather than swinging. For some jazz musicians, the notion of jazz without elegance and swing requires a conceptual leap too big to handle. But for younger jazz musicians, who never disowned rock and funk, that leap feels like the most natural thing in the world.

Chestnut has no problem getting a handle on Pavement. His solo piano version of “Trigger Cut” translates the jerky, staccato guitar riffs into stabbing keyboard chords and interposes fluid, single-note runs for the push-and-pull between guitar and voice. Chestnut switches to a bubbly electric piano to evoke the romanticism of “Summer Babe,” while Jackson and Veal give the stomping beat the precision and the secondary accents it never had in Pavement’s hands.

It’s Carter, though, who translates the crucial noise of Malkmus’ guitar into honking, howling saxophone. “Stereo,” which opened with guitar distortion, now opens with Carter’s tenor sax going from growling bottom to squealing top. “Platform Blues” began sweet and low-key before descending into the cacophony of Malkmus’ guitar and Jonny Greenwood’s harmonica. On Gold Sounds, the sax solo builds into a dizzying swirl of melody, buzzing and wailing as if Carter were channeling John Coltrane.

The Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey works an analogous transformation when the piano trio adapts guitar music. The group’s secret weapon is the way pianist Brian Haas and bassist Reed Mathis trade roles. Sometimes Haas plays the lead melody and Mathis plays the lower rhythm parts, but just as often Mathis hits an octave pedal and leaps upward into a lead melody role while Haas sinks into the groove with drummer Jason Smart. (No, there’s no one named Jacob Fred in the band.)

Haas takes the lead on Brian Wilson’s “Wonderful,” suggesting what the Bill Evans Trio might have done with the thematically rich ballad, while Mathis takes the lead on Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” his bass resembling an electric clarinet or a sustain-pedal guitar. Smart plays with far more suppleness and subtlety than David King, his counterpart in the Bad Plus, another jazz piano trio with a taste for rock tunes. The Bad Plus has gotten all the press, but the JFJO is making more interesting music.

This is most obvious on “The Spark That Bled,” written by the JFJO’s fellow Oklahomans, the Flaming Lips. It’s a tune that lends itself to jazz interpretation, full of unexpected shifts from major to minor, dreamy to jittery, lush to dissonant, earnest to funny. JFJO makes the changes feel more like a natural development rather than a cut-and-paste job; each new musical idea follows from the previous one.

An even better piano-trio album is the Brad Mehldau Trio’s Day Is Done, which takes its title from a Nick Drake number. There are also songs from Radiohead, the Beatles, Burt Bacharach, and Paul Simon, but none becomes smooth jazz. If anything, this is jagged jazz, more difficult to grasp than the originals. Mehldau ferrets out melodic gems from recent pop hits as themes for his own variations, the same way that Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk chewed up the pop hits of their day.

Like them, Mehldau has the rare gift of making his improvisations sound as melodic and coherent as the source material. Thus, when he tackles “Knives Out,” he begins with Radiohead’s insistent melody and then, through one small alteration after another, transforms it into a different insistent melody that’s all his own.

The highlights of the album are the two Beatles tunes, “Martha My Dear” and “She’s Leaving Home.” These Paul McCartney melodies are instantly familiar to almost anyone born after World War II. Mehldau changes one note and then another until only a ghost of the original remains, while the new notes introduced into the line suggest a second melody, like two songs playing at once, meshing perfectly. Mehldau strips all the studio trickery and sonic layering away from the Beatles or Radiohead for something just as valuable: material so rich that it can flourish with nothing more than an acoustic piano, an acoustic bass, and a drum set.

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