Saturday, June 06, 2015

Jivin' to the Juke

A blast from the past, and it's not ALL about that bass ...

It began with a simple link to a Youtube video that a friend posted on Facebook with the comment that they really liked this version of the song. I nearly didn't look, but something about the preview caught my eye (maybe it was the dress she had on) and I watched. The song was "All About That Bass," the Megan Trainor hit that's been making its own buzz online. But this new group called Postmodern Jukebox was doing it as if it had been written during the golden age of swing, with a trio of vocalists who could harmonize like the Andrews Sisters, and a sense of humor about the whole thing that was infectious.

"Wow," I commented on the Facebook post, "the '40s are alive and well!" Soon I found I had to see it again and share it with people, who universally loved it. These guys were onto something and I wanted to know what it was.

I focused on the singers first, finding that each of them brought something unique to her performance as they took turns doing solos, duets, and finally a trio. Their names are Haley Reinhardt, Morgan James, and Ariana Savalas, and they are part of the "European tour cast" of Postmodern Jukebox. (More on that below.) I learned that Hailey was a number three finalist on The Voice who has her own solo album, as does Morgan James, and that Ariana is related to the actor named Savalas.

Haley leads off "All About That Bass" with a throaty growl on "my momma she told me" and delivers a performance worthy of any classic torch singer. Then Morgan takes over with her own sassy treatment of lines like "from the bottom to the top - HEY!" Finally, after a brief intermission for the bass solo, in which two players work the same instrument at the same time -- and switch places with one another in the middle -- it's Ariana's turn to celebrate the lyric with a smoother touch, arms flailing the air in celebration. The three finish it off with an a capella repetition of the title line, closed out by a bump of the oft-mentioned booty. Delightful every time.

But who was in charge of all this? Was it the bass player? If so, which one? Well, no, it's actually the one musician you don't see in the video because he's hidden behind the piano where he's hard at work stitching this whole thing together. Scott Bradlee is a jazz musician from Long Island who began his career in New York. A few years ago he began experimenting with arranging and performing contemporary songs as they might have been done if sent back in a time machine to an earlier era.

He explains that this is really what jazz musicians have been doing for many years, continually adopting new contemporary works into the repertoire of what our local NPR station calls "America's classical music." But normally that's done by casting them into the form of contemporary jazz, whatever that might be at the time. Bradlee has gone a step further by rolling back the clock.

He's put together a rotating group of vocalists, drummers, bass players, and assorted brass and winds -- even a cello and harp in a couple of places -- who are capable of reproducing the style and energy of everything from Dixieland to Swing and Gospel. And let me be clear -- when I say "reproducing" I don't mean one of those moth-eaten tributes that grace the air of PBS during pledge week. These guys do it as if it has never been done before, with all the fresh energy and sex appeal that made the style so popular in the first place.

It's not just "All About That Bass." Bradlee and his cohorts have produced a series of top-selling albums and a staggering 80+ videos for Youtube with an equally staggering number of views and subscribers. Now on the road for the first time they're selling out venues in multiple countries. With this kind of success it seems clear they've struck a nerve, and I think I know what it is.

One word. Melody.

You may have noticed this key musical ingredient has been mostly absent from contemporary rap. When you can sing the lyrics with a drum you know something is missing. For example,

Dada dada dada dada dada dada DA
Dada dada dada dada dada dada DA

Or maybe for variety something like

Dada DA da dada dada dada dada DA

In this wasteland it's no surprise that someone like Adele can become an overnight sensation by delivering what listeners have been starved for. If you have any doubt, check out this interview with Bradlee and close personal friend Robyn Anderson where they describe having to create a melody for a song that basically was missing one. And as I explained recently, even Bob Dylan is reaching back into the classic American songbook to dredge up those blasts from the past.

An irony in this situation is that we have some great jazz schools in this country -- our own University of Miami is a perfect example -- that are turning out a slew of graduates equipped with the skills they need to rival the old masters of the form. But they emerge from college all dressed up with nowhere to go. The venues that used to offer a place for those hot little combos to play have all dried up. Radio airplay is filled with the above mentioned rap. Even selling jazz recordings is a tough job.

But the success of Postmodern Jukebox offers some hope. They're on such a roll, and their method of accumulating talent is so expandable, that you could even imagine them becoming a kind of Blue Man Group for jazz vocals with branches on tour all around. Hey, it could happen. Even better, they might inspire some competition. Jazz clubs could re-open, and songwriters could begin writing, um, songs again.

Hey, that could happen, too.

Meanwhile, enjoy them while you can. Just to get started you can check out this quick intro on What is Postmodern Jukebox. Then click into their Youtube channel and see what it has to offer. You'll note the interesting minimalist style where a single fixed camera lets you focus on the performance as a whole, just as you would at a live performance in a small club. But whatever you do, don't leave until you've seen these:

"Creep," in which Haley Reinhardt transforms the Radiohead tune from the 1980s into a soulful anthem for anyone who has ever felt unworthy of the one they admire from afar. This knockout is the very definition of singing your heart out. I think I may be in love.

"Barbie Girl," which features Morgan James choreographed as a doll and doing an amazing impersonation of a Theremin while a man behind her pretends to play one in this playful Beach Boys imitation.

"Gangsta's Paradise." Omygod, I never heard the words before Robyn Adele Anderson sang them like this. Just check it out.

"Bad Romance." Ariana Savalas takes Lady Gaga back to the Gatsby era while a tap dancer provides counterpoint. When is the last time you saw a tap dancer? And I forgot to mention, Ariana leads off the song by whistling. When is the last time you heard that since maybe Bing Crosby?

You can also get an insight into Scott Bradlee's own talent by watching him take Twinkle, Twinkle through several decades of style transformations. In another life he might have made a great studio backup man.

And if after watching all that you find you're still not hooked, then you might as well move along because you just don't get it. Maybe, in the words of "All About That Bass," you'd prefer a stick-figure silicone Barbie doll?

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