Jazz Punks Smash It Up
LA band Jazz Punks’ new album, Smashups is due out early next week: it’s one of the most entertainingly original efforts to come over the transom this year. Their claim to fame is something they may not have invented, but that they take to new extremes: the jazz mashup. Musicians have been spicing up songs with brief quotes and sometimes longer passages from other songs for a long time, but this band makes that device their signature shtick. Perfect example: Clash-Up, the second track. It starts out perfectly straight-up with the intro to Should I Stay or Should I Go, then Robby Elfman’s tenor sax comes in with the riff from Take Five. But they don’t just milk the joke for all it’s worth: they drop the heavy guitar and drums and swing it, take it halfspeed, give guitarist Sal Polcino a blithe solo which signals a detour into minor-key blues territory, and then they bring it back up again with a very good joke. To be fair, the band name is a little misleading: these guys are first and foremost a jazz band, albeit one looking forward to “busting out of the postbop ghetto,” in the words of drummer Hugh Elliott, who does an artful job switching in a split second between swing and four-on-the-floor stomp.
Another sly and very smart reinvention is Creep Train, which sets the riff to Take the A Train over two Radiohead vamps, from Creep and Paranoid Android: the way Elfman’s tongue-in-cheek microtonalities induce laughs and then goosebumps is an unexpected treat. Likewise, Heavyfoot slowly and cleverly morphs from a slow stoner soul take on Wayne Shorter’s Footprints to the Beatles’ She’s So Heavy, Mike Polcino’s bass arpeggios setting up the punchline from the guitar and drums. More than any song here, the final track, Led Gillespie, manages to keep A Night in Tunisia and Led Zep’s Misty Mountain Hop together for almost the entirety of the cut, distant heavy metal thunder underpinning Danny Kastner’s swinging piano solo. You wouldn’t expect this to work but somehow the band pulls it off.
Foleo – a hodgepodge of Sonny Rollins’ Oleo and Purple Haze – swings a lot more than it rocks. And not everything here is a jazz/rock hybrid. 12 Steps to Hell – now there’s a title to raise a glass to!!! – gently but cruelly savages 7 Steps to Heaven. There are also serious compositions here. Mind Over Matter, by Kastner, takes a familiar Miles Davis riff, adds a little salsa, a lot of rhythmic shifts and a solo from Elfman that almost imperceptibly builds to a biting, vividly agitated crescendo. Little Chickens, a soulful shuffle by the Polcinos, juxtaposes a raw, funky guitar solo with a jape from Kastner which might be the single most amusing moment out of many here. The least successful track is Bo-So, which mingles Body and Soul with Coltraine’s Naima – with its constant rhythmic tug-of-war, it’s perfectly enjoyable, but the comedy factor doesn’t rate since Body and Soul has been mangled and butchered and had other things done to it so many times before.
There’s an element of jazz fans who are going to hate this album: “You guys swing, just drop the dumb rock stuff!” There are also rock fans who will hate it just as much: “Just play the song, don’t ruin it with all that weird jazz stuff!” But put this on at a party: heads will turn. And every musician in the room will secretly be thinking, “This is great, why didn’t I come up with that idea?”
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