TV on the Radio and Jazz

I’ve just glommed on to TV on the Radio, and let me tell all those who are as out-of-it as I am, when it comes to contemporary rock, the band is really very good. I first heard them play on Steven Colbert’s show, then bought their latest CD Dear Science (which the Village Voice and others touted as the best album of 2008), and I’ve listened to it since at least a dozen times. As I wrote a little over a year ago about Radiohead, after I first heard In Rainbows, it’s as harmonically and rhythmically sophisticated as just about any work of modern jazz—which is not to say that it’s like jazz but rather that, on any musical level, the purest jazz purist has no grounds for looking down on it.

So here’s my question (and my topic for the day): Why aren’t jazz musicians more involved in this sort of music? The stream sometimes flows in one direction—Brad Mehldau has covered Radiohead tunes, Jason Moran and Matthew Shipp have made excursions into hip-hop—but not so much in the other; that is to say, today’s pop bands tend not to hire established jazz musicians to play with them. (A few go both ways—for instance, Nels Cline plays with Wilco, Marc Ribot came out of the Lounge Lizards—but those are exceptions.)

Crossover was once far more commonplace. Joni Mitchell recruited Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock; Steely Dan hired Shorter, Phil Woods, and (fairly recently) Chris Potter; Stevie Wonder once featured Dizzy Gillespie on an inspired solo; the Grateful Dead briefly brought David Murray on tour, to wild acclaim from Deadheads, who hailed him as “the Hendrix of the tenor sax” (if anyone has a bootleg of those concerts, please let me know).

One could argue that pop has moved on since those heady days; even the Dead had closer ties to Tin Pan Alley than to TV on the Radio’s multiculti polyphonies. But many of today’s best young jazz musicians grew up on rock and rap as well as Kern and Gershwin, and incorporate everything they’ve heard into what they play. As John Zorn, who’s not so young (a year older than I am), once said, in an age when you can buy records from all over the world with a single click, there’s no reason why music shouldn’t absorb and reflect that diversity.

That attitude is shared by a lot of today’s jazz musicians and pop musicians. You can hear it in their music. But they’re not making music together. There’s plenty of fertile ground for crossbreeding, but there’s little mating going on. David Murray once said in an interview (I think with Cadence magazine) that he’d love to play on a Stevie Wonder record, that he could bring a lot to it. When are the likes of Murray, Moran, or Dave Douglas, or John Zorn going to be asked to play with TV on the Radio? The polygot world awaits.

James Harrigan's picture

Fred, here's a counter-example to the "pop musicians don't hire jazz musicians" observations: a few weeks ago Ani di Franco played Charlottesville, VA with Allison Miller on drums and Todd Sickafoose on bass. Neither Miller nor Sickafoose is at the absolute top of the jazz heap, but both have good chops and jazz feeling in their playing with Ani. It was a very fine show.also, going the other direction, check out Ben Allison's latest CD. it rocks!

chris h's picture

"the Grateful Dead briefly brought David Murray on tour, to wild acclaim from Deadheads, who hailed him as “the Hendrix of the tenor sax” (if anyone has a bootleg of those concerts, please let me know). "Fred - I have the 9/22/93 MSG show with Murray, drop me a line if you need a copy.

chris h's picture

Yo La Tengo also did some interesting stuff with William Parker & Other Dimensions in Music and have also had some of the Sun Ra Arkestra sit in as well.

Fred Kaplan's picture

All these comments are interesting. I'll respond to them at some point. Meanwhile, Chris H, give me an email address or something, to let me know how to get in touch. (You can send it to me at Fred Kaplan

John Moore's picture

Joe Henry recruited Ornette Coleman, Brad Mehldau, and Brian Blade to play on his album "Scar," and Don Byron made several contributions to Henry's "Tiny Voices."Otherwise, it is strange that pop musicians don't collaborate as much with their jazz counterparts.

George E's picture

You can stream the 1993 MSG concert with Murray at

Steve Dollar's picture

There are many more examples of rock musicians using jazz cats as sidemen (Lou Reed/Don Cherry, My Morning Jacket/Steven Bernstein) ... but outside of Thirsty Ear's experiments in hybridization (the Spring Heel Jack collabs with Shipp, Evan Parker, Jay Spaceman, and others is a good example), jazz doesn't really offer complementary gestures. You do have improvisers like Mary Halvorson working in out-rock settings (she's opened for the Melvins in Trio Convulsant) or Bill Frisell doing anything from funk to ambient to Americana .... but maybe guitar players don't count because in many ways a guitar is freer to slip between genres than, say, an alto sax ... Does Anthony Braxton sitting in with Wolf Eyes on the album "Black Vomit" count?

Sam T's picture

An interesting example of jazzists hiring rock musicians: Wendy Lewis (an indie rocker) is singing with The Bad Plus now.