Jazz and Radiohead

I was listening to Radiohead’s new album, In Rainbows. It’s really as great as all the rock critics say. More than that (from this blog’s angle), it’s as harmonically and rhythmically sophisticated as just about any work of modern jazz. (I’m not saying it’s like jazz; rather, that on any musical level, the purest jazz purist has no grounds for looking down on it.) The album sent me to my music closet to take another listen to Brad Mehldau’s cover of Radiohead’s “Knives Out,” from his trio’s 2005 CD on the Nonesuch label, Day Is Done. I listened through all 10 tracks—which include, besides two Mehldau compositions, Lennon & McCartney’s “Martha My Dear” and “She’s Leaving Home,” Burt Bacharach’s “Alfie,” Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and the title tune by Nick Drake.

It was a brilliant album that didn’t receive the accolades it deserved. (I put it on my 10-best list that year, but I can’t think of any other critics who did.) Listening to the two albums back to back raised a larger point—which is that the lines and barriers between “pop music” and “art music” are breaking down, and, for the most part, this is to the good. Those who maligned jazz-rock “fusion” in the late ‘60s and ‘70s did so, in the main, with good reason; but the drek was drek not because it was fusion but because it was bad fusion—because it combined the least imaginative elements of both genres of music. Jazz has always been a hybrid art. From the beginning, it fused African rhythms and European harmonies. Jellyroll Morton spoke of “the Latin tinge.” Songs that we now regard as “jazz standards”—“Body and Soul,” “Embraceable You,” “My Funny Valentine,” and so forth—started out as the pop tunes (mainly Broadway show tunes) of their day. Yes, it was a dreadful thing to hear a monstrosity like Sarah Vaughan Sings the Beatles or Duke Ellington doing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” But those were cases of dreadful mismatches, not evidence against the case for crossing breeds.

We have Herbie Hancock feting Joni Mitchell in River: The Joni Letters (Mitchell’s own jazz-inflected excursions of the ‘70s, Mingus and The Hissing of the Summer Lawns, deserve a fresh re-hearing); Dave Douglas playing Mary J. Blige and Rufus Wainwright; Cassandra Wilson singing “The Wichita Lineman;” Jason Moran incorporating hip-hop, gospel, the cadences of Turkish phone conversations (as well as Monk, standards, Chopin ballads, and every other thing he wraps his mind around); and on the list could go.

The best of these latter-day fusions combine the most imaginative qualities of the music’s various elements—complexity, soul, wit, and swing—and the distinctive flavorings of the artist at the helm. (Listen in particular to Mehldau’s take on “Martha My Dear;” he turns it into a Bach fugue while staying true to the song’s essence.) More than this, the best fusions exude authenticity. Young musicians like Mehldau and Moran grew up listening to rock and hip-hop, as well as to Schubert and Monk. They’re not pandering when they dip into more popular genres. The Bad Plus isn’t winking and nudging when they cover Bjork or Nirvana. This is their music; and by melding it with jazz, they’re being true to the jazz tradition.

There are still those—a smart critic like Stanley Crouch among them—who argue that jazz is music in the African-American tradition and that music derived from other lineages isn’t really jazz. I’m more in tune—and so is much of the creative jazz of our time—with John Zorn, who, when I interviewed him for a New Yorker profile nine years ago, noted that Tower Records (and now, he would add, the Internet) gives us access to music from all over the world. Why shouldn’t modern music absorb and reflect the world in which it breathes?

GJ's picture

Great post, but since when is Nick Drake a "Broadway songmeister"?

Dan S.'s picture

Why not, indeed?It's all music, anyway - either you like it, or you don't!...:-).

John Atkinson's picture

First Christopher O'Riley, now Fred Kaplan. Guess I'd better take a listen to In Rainbows for myself!

selfdivider's picture

great post, FK. also, let's add brad mehldau to JA's list.

Austin Jackson's picture

In Rainbows has been my personal soundtrack since it was released. It really is brilliant. If you like the album, they also produced live videos of all the songs (available on their website or youtube.com).

Tony's picture

Since rock is really a derivative from, and development of, a combination of blues and R&B, it always made sense to me that jazz and rock could live fruitfully together, with the resultant interaction maintaining the essential swing and blues feeling of jazz, but adding the propulsion and irony of modern rock. Not sure I'm completely with Crouch on this, for I like plenty of "out" music, but still prefer to feel, if only by implication, some blues sensibility at the root of the music.

Fred Kaplan's picture

In response to GJ - I won't begin to delve into the mnemonic mindgames and misremembrances that led me to describe Nick Drake as a "Broadway songmeister." One lesson of this, which I thought I'd learned long ago: Always fact-check anything written after midnight. The mistake has been deleted...Fred Kaplan

CrocodileChuck's picture

Fred"The Latin Tinge": it was Jellyroll Morton who called this out as an essential component of jazz-not Fats Waller.CrocodileChuck

Cihangir G's picture

In fact the purest music purist has no grounds for looking on to "In Rainbows" at all. It may be a good album (I don't call it a rock album; lets call it as pop album) but there are many better options which were released a few years ago. It may be evaluated as a background music at best(which I will do so after spending a solid 25-USD on it; fool me, I missed the opportunity to pay 1-USD for that album!). If this is their best music, I decided to be away from them forever and stay with my worst music indeed. Nothing appealing sonically & musically (half octave of vocals, very loose guitar riffs, straightforward rythms and some other very ordinary work). I suggest one to listen serious music like QOTSA and The Strokes before evaluating this. In fact I also suggest a DJ music lover to listen Jarre's Teo&Tea before jumping on the grounds of a disco and wallowing in ignorance. New music from new people really (but really!) sucks. Nobody does good music nowadays. Ask yourself why?

jazzseb's picture

Do you know Amnesiac quartet it's jazz radiohead'scover :watch it :http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-790ehxSs20