In a recent New York magazine article, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis dismissed contemporary popular music with a single line: "All the pop songs they make now are so sad you canít even mess with them." As the unofficial gatekeeper of mainstream jazz, Marsalis in these words speaks volumes about the concept of the jazz "standard" within the bop-centric establishment. The wonderfully eclectic mix of Tin Pan Alley compositions, Broadway show tunes, and New Orleans blues is no longer a fluid, oral tradition. Instead, itís become a stiff and brittle canon, codified, guarded, and defended by Marsalis and his ilk like Orthodox rabbis watching over the five books of Moses.
Fortunately, thereís a bunch of feisty New Yorkers whoíd love to smash those tablets over Marsalisís head. A handful of recent jazz releases ó EZ Pour Spoutís Donít Shave the Feeling (Love Slave), Sex Mobís Sex Mob Does Bond (Ropeadope), and the Josh Roseman Unitís Cherry (Knitting Factory/Velour) ó explore a different kind of jazz standard, taking the typical repertoire on a tour of more unconventional territory. Drawing on everything from brassy James Bond soundtracks to í80s cheesy television themesongs to gritty early-í90s grunge, all three groups seem to take a perverse thrill in trying to piss off the moldy figs uptown.
But is turning Nirvanaís "Heart Shaped Box" into a country-tinged jazz ballad, as EZ Pour Spout do, really an act of heresy? After all, the traditional jazz canon is built on compositions that were the pop songs of their day. "My Favorite Things" was lightweight fluff until John Coltrane recast the tune as a swirling, hypnotic incantation. In that sense, groups like EZ Pour Spout, Sex Mob, and the Josh Roseman Unit are simply reconnecting jazz and pop into the kissing cousins they used to be.
Sex Mobís loudmouth leader, slide-trumpeter Steven Bernstein, has a habit of offending jazz snobs with his Abba covers and trash-talking stage monologues. But on Sex Mob Does Bond, the quartetís third album, Sex Mob (assisted by organist John Medeski) offer straight-faced takes on the music from various James Bond films, stringing the John Barry compositions into a series of suites. Less cheeky than their previous releases, the disc pays serious tribute to Barryís iconic motifs, though the group canít help but twist things up a bit. Bernsteinís wobbly lines inject these trademark themes with a hint of wooziness, and drummer Kenny Wolleson and bassist Tony Scherr are fond of locking into dub vamps that are pure minimalist cool. In the end, Sex Mobís vision of 007 feels more lonely than glamorous, more sleazy than sophisticated.
Sex Mobís saxophonist, Briggan Kraus, is also one-fifth of EZ Pour Spout, whose debut disc, Donít Shave the Feeling, is better suited to CBGBís than the Village Vanguard. Loud, brash, and noisy, this group of downtown regulars ó Krauss and trombonist Curtis Hasselbring, guitarist/keyboardist Jamie Saft, bassist J.A. Granelli, and drummer John Mettam ó produce ragged punk jazz that subverts conventional purist acoustics for trashy, red-lining squalls and fuzzy freakouts.
Thatís the set-up. The punch line is the material. Beginning with a fairly straightforward version of the themesong from the í80s TV show The A-Team, EZ Pour Spout launch into full-bore renditions of classic rock nuggets (Led Zeppelin, Cream, Frank Zappa), suave lounge pop (Burt Bacharach), and prime Nirvana ("Heart Shaped Box"). Their run through Zepís "Kashmir" is heroic and mystical; a cover of Bacharachís "Donít Make Me Over" is appropriately delicate. Their habit of ending tunes in a swirl of free-jazz skronks and screeches tends to give an aura of ironic piss-take to the proceedings. But they occasionally manage a bit of musical alchemy, finding, for example, an attractive, angular melody hiding in AC/DCís fist-pumping "Back in Black."
Like EZ Pour Spout, the Josh Roseman Unit take on Nirvana, Burt Bacharach, and Led Zeppelin in their boisterous, eclectic debut, Cherry. Led by Roseman, a co-founder of acid-jazz regulars Groove Collective and the Brooklyn Funk Essentials, the group give the trombonist an opportunity to stretch out a bit more than those funk-heavy units did. Roseman exploits the tromboneís voicelike qualities in a jaunty ska take on the Leiber/Stoller gem "Donít Be Cruel," and his work on "Kashmir" is brassy and bombastic. Backed by an all-star group that includes guitarist Dave Fiuczynski, drummer Joey Baron, the ubiquitous John Medeski, and the late trumpeter Lester Bowie, he romps through Sun Ra, Marvin Gaye, and some impressive originals with a playful tone and plenty of wit. Maybe thatís why a friend of mine snidely labels this stuff as "joke jazz." Agreed, but when did laughing become a sin?