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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Music for Postmoderns

WHAT MAKES TAYLOR SWIFT’S song “Shake It Off” turns out to be Swift herself. Had my initial exposure to it been video-free, sparing me from the sight of her song-long hissy fit, I might have warmed a bit more to the piece, but YouTube is the too-easy music-finder these days. It’s also where I discovered the Postmodern Jukebox cover of that song, a single-camera recording in one long take, where the song is transformed into Motown-inflected R&B thanks to crooner Von Smith, brass and backup singers, and the high-energy arrangement by keyboard wizard Scott Bradlee.

Postmodern Jukebox
Photo by Michael Webber
Not surprisingly, this was the program closer at PMJ’s Capital Region debut, a performance at the Tory Music Hall last Saturday. The variously sized ensemble has rocketed to fame over the past year thanks to its unprepossessing but compelling videos, and is in the midst of a tour taking them around the country and beyond.

Bradlee is a protean jazzsmith, moving easily from stride to funk, as dynamic a soloist as he is comfortable in the ensemble. His arrangements for that ensemble – clarinet, trombone, bass, and drums for the Troy date – capture not only the spirit of particular moments in pop music’s history, but also an aggregation of styles; thus, he might punctuate a straight-ahead rhythm and blues with a spare Basie-inflected break.

And that’s the secret behind his group’s success. The songs themselves are familiar to fans of what’s selling today; the arrangements recall what we older grumpuses grew up listening to; but the backbone is jazz at its most infectious.

The live show is something of a variety act, recalling the kind of thing Spike Jones toured into the 1960s, with a single band backing singers, dancers, and more. Although Bradlee’s group doesn’t indulge in cowbells and gunshots, its roster of tapdancers, singers, and maniacal tambourine artist keeps the evening lively, and the whole shebang kicked off with amusing, satirical “words from our sponsors,” radio-style ads to reinforce the notion of a trip back in time.

Or at least sideways. Hard to consider Jason Derulo’s “Wiggle” in antique terms, but with the jazzy ensemble and Alex MacDonald’s tapdancing behind dynamic vocalist Robyn Adele Anderson, the clash of eras was robust and exciting.

Anderson, an Albany native, then took us into a solid ’20s territory with “Call Me Maybe,” looking and sounding every inch the Gatsby-era chanteuse. Until she came back for “Thrift Shop” later in the program, and turned the piece into a Swing-Era number (thanks also, of course, to Bradlee’s arrangement). But wait – she did more! If Derulo’s own “Talk Dirty” version seems definitive, PMJ drew from the klezmer-like element that pops up in the original and turned the song into an all-frahlich romp, complete with Yiddish rap courtesy of Anderson and inspiring clarinet work from Ben Golder-Novick, who switched to tenor sax from time to time throughout the evening – when he wasn’t finger-snapping or dancing along with the tunes.

Anderson had some competition. Christina Gatti put the smolder into “Womanizer” and turned Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love” into late-era swing. Ashley Stroud proved that she could be bluesy or ’20s-ish or whatever she wished, and, as in her cover of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” throw in a tap-dance break as well. She danced a vintage-RKO duet with MacDonald (“Straight Up”) and joined the other two canaries in “Burn,” here given the girl-group treatment complete with doo-wops and synchronized arm movements (also courtesy Stroud, who is a choreographer as well).

Emcee Davis unleashed a powerful voice on “How You Remind Me,” which also brought out the most frantic human being I’ve ever seen on stage, the tambourine-rattling Tim Kubart, who may have spent more time airborne than grounded. Keeping in a Nickelback groove, Davis also put a great R&B beat to “Rock Star.”

And then there was Von Smith. Now, if there’s anyone who warrants the post-modern label, it’s probably Nasri, who gave a reggae beat to a whiny love song in his hit “Rude” – but the boyish Smith whisked us back to the ’50s with his version, girl backup singers by his side, and the song finds an equally appropriate home.

Pianist Bradlee paid his dues as a club pianist, and put on his Alec Templeton hat towards the end of the show, getting a gaggle of styles (Alicia Keys, Billy Joel, Toto, the Moody Blues) from which to weave characteristic, layered medley in his only solo turn. From there it was a short trip to “Shake It Off,” with Smith taking the lead and Bradlee veering into an extended “meet the band” segment before the bows. And an encore of Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie.”

Bradlee and crew – he has large roster of talent that he works with, as his many YouTube videos show – have a terrific premise for what they do, with enough variety to keep the two-hour set from ever flagging. The only problem at this performance is one that frequently undermines first-time performers at this hall: a lousy sound mix. It’s a lively acoustic, deceptively resonant, but the mix must have been designed for headphones because the vocalists often sounded screechy and inaudible, and that’s no easy trick. (At one point, the trombonist kicked his foldback speaker out of the way, which isn’t a good sign.) Here’s hoping that when Postmodern Jukebox returns, which I anticipate with pleasure, their sound crew will have solved those problems.

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