Jazz Punks: Smashups
As its name and debut album title suggest, the Los Angeles-based Jazz Punks seeks to "smash up" the jazz, punk and rock genres. But let's face it, jazz and punk hate each other, right? Jazz: all brain and no balls. Punk: all balls no brain. Nothing in common.
On the one hand, we have punk. Blistering pace; overtly political; born out of the hard times and cross-cultural cauldron of low-income London and New York; a strange amalgamation of rebellious simplicity, the rhythms of London's Caribbean community (remember those reggae beats?) and distilled aggression; constantly seeking the unconventional; a big f-you to the mainstream.
On the other hand, we have jazz. Born from the crossroads of low-income rural and inner- city America; a strange cross-pollination of African and European musics and the blues; defined by subversive complexity; constantly challenging conventional boundaries; played at a blistering pace (at least sometimes); and at certain points in its history, overtly political.
Hmmm. It seems the Jazz Punks may be onto something more than a simple artistic conceit after all. Of course, the proof is in the pudding.
At its best, Smashups peels back the contradictions of its two namesake musical genres to create a fun, appealing, barnstorming-type experiment. When it misses, the band tends to slide into a more straightforward jazz idiom, which while perfectly listenable, falls short of the promise embedded in its name. In truth, the album spends the majority of its ten tracks digging into the rock genre rather than classic punk, but the results are nonetheless entertaining and even these carry a certain punkish tinge in their mischievous quality and hard-edged sonics.
Tunes like the opening "Foleo," built on Sonny Rollins' "Oleo," the daring "I Can See Miles," which introduces Miles Davis' "Pfrancing" to the Who's anthem "I Can See for Miles," and the brilliantly schizophrenic "Led Gillespie," which sounds like "A Night in Tunisia" engaging in a drunken one-night stand with Led Zeppelin's "Misty Mountain Hop," all deliver a distinctively engaging blend of humor, savvy and entertainment.
The standout tune, however, is far and away "Clash-Up," which tackles the Clash's popular "Should I Stay or Should I Go" and "Take Five." This tune reveals the fertile territory that the punk genre could offer jazz, and the whole band shines on it.
Certainly, the Jazz Punks is not the first group to approach modern rock, and even punk music, as grist for its jazz mill. For example, Radiohead, which the band also incorporates, seems almost on the verge of becoming part of a new jazz standard. After all, jazz always mined popular music for its base ingredients, and younger musicians have started recognizing that there is no reason today's popular music can't be used the same wayin fact, in some cases, it makes a lot more sense for 20-something jazzers to turn to Radiohead, the Rolling Stones and Coldplay, rather than Broadway musicals from the 1930s.
All that said, when firing on all cylinders, the Jazz Punks has done more than take the traditional jazz approach of converting a "pop" original tune into a jazz piece. The Jazz Punks is busy carving out a different sound by "mashing" the tunes together, so that the jazz and original elements are both equally present, making the resulting cocktail both tasty and volatile.
Though still finding its footing, the Jazz Punks has successfully baited the hook with Smashups. Perhaps contradictory, a bold next step would be to take things more literally and plunge all the way into the punk canon. What would be revealed could be exciting.
Tracks: Foleo; Clash Up; Creep Train; Mind Over Matter; Heavyfoot; Bo-So; I Can See Miles; Little Chickens; 12 Steps to Hell; Led Gillespie.
Personnel: Sal Polcino: guitar; Robby Elfman: saxophone; Danny Kastner: piano; Michael Polcino: bass; Hugh Elliot: drums.