Thursday, March 20, 2014

Postmodern Jukebox: An Alternate Universe of Pop Music

One of the themes we write about at Acculturated is the distinction (or lack of one) between “high” culture and pop culture today. The topic can polarize critics, artists and audiences, so it’s always a pleasure to celebrate artists who creatively bridge that gap rather than sneer at each other from opposite shores. Case in point: jazz pianist Scott Bradlee, whose Postmodern Jukebox seamlessly blends “high” and “low” art in a fresh, joyful, exciting way.

Bradlee himself initially held a lot of pop music in disdain – a “willful ignorance,” as he calls it, that continued until he began making YouTube videos and receiving requests to perform modern pop songs. As he writes on the Postmodern Jukebox website:

I decided to drop my preconceived notions and examine contemporary pop with an open mind. What I found is that, despite my initial aversion to the stuff I was hearing, I was unable to truly categorize this as “bad music” without first defining a set of arbitrary, culturally-defined criteria... As a relentless devil’s advocate, I then found that by simply altering the context of such songs, I could find quite a bit of artistic merit inside of them.

Artistic merit indeed. I never thought I’d find myself recommending a Wham! song, but check out PJ’s vintage jazz version of the 1984 hit “Careless Whisper,” with pop-up saxophonist Dave Koz having almost too much fun. The song’s outstanding instrumental break features not only a nod to Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5” but also a brilliantly surprising bar or two of The Police’s “Message in a Bottle.”

I’m no Miley Cyrus fan and don’t even especially like doo-wop, but I could listen all day long to Postmodern Jukebox’s version of Miley’s hit “We Can’t Stop,” featuring a couple of members of The Tee-Tones on backup vocals. In fact, I’ve contributed to probably dozens of the YouTube video’s 8+ million hits. Another song PJ performs better than the original artist is Lorde’s “Royals” (6+ million YouTube hits), featuring the almost operatically powerful presence of Puddles the clown on lead vocals.

Other creative PJ takes on pop hits include: a bluegrass barn dance version of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”; a 1940’s swing version of Justin Bieber/Nicki Minaj’s “Beauty and a Beat”; an acoustic-electro-swing-hiphop “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”; a ‘40s jazz cover of Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” featuring a tapdance break; a mariachi-style take on Avicii’s “Wake Me Up”; and an Irish tenor cover of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” – all filmed live against stark white walls in the corner of Bradlee’s living room for their YouTube videos. (All of the above – except “Careless Whisper” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” – and ten more cover songs are collected in Twist is the New Twerk.)

The creative arrangements are driven by Bradlee’s rollicking and rhythmic piano style. The musicianship is tight, flawless, and never grandstanding, including the pure vocals – a welcome relief from the showy contemporary singing style of which it could be said, like Mozart in Amadeus, that “there are simply too many notes.” A special shout-out to drummer Allan Mednard, whose subtlety and precision are a joy to watch – or would be except that you can’t take your eyes off singer Robyn Adele Anderson. Her classic vocal style never overwhelms the song and her merest wink and flick of the hip is loaded with more potent sexuality than the twerking and tongue-wagging Miley Cyrus could ever aspire to.

For anyone who has written off today’s pop music as lowbrow, uncreative, and devoid of real musicianship – as Scott Bradlee himself once did – give him and Postmodern Jukebox a spin.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/18/14)