Postmodern Jukebox has a reputation of making vintage modern, and modern vintage by turning today’s pop hits into something with jazz, rag-time and doo-wop vibes – minus the auto tune that so many of us are used to hearing.
The group, founded by pianist and arranger Scott Bradlee, has been around since 2013 and has racked up more than 200 million youtube views of their unique arrangements – which also appear on more than 17 albums.
Postmodern Jukebox, or PMJ for short, has a rotating roster of more than 90 musicians and vocalists – with a huge range of backgrounds from classically trained musicians, some who can play three trumpets at once, to reality TV stars. They are heading to our shores, for the third time, at the end of this week.
But it wasn’t always glitz, glam and all that jazz for 35 year old Bradlee. After finishing university he moved to New York City to pursue a career as a jazz pianist, but the audiences weren’t that interested.
A love of Gershwin kept him going and PMJ was born. But it was more about being true to himself than it was trying to make jazz music relevant. ““I think it’s better to pursue authenticity,” he says. “Do what makes you happy and what you believe in because then that comes across as being relevant in some way.”
He first discovered this style of music when he was a child. Bradlee started piano lessons at nine, but like many of us he hated lessons and never practiced. It wasn’t long until the teacher kicked him out. Then he heard Rhapsody in Blue and that was it. “It was a beautiful classical piece,” he says. “[But it was] exciting and brash; cool sounding … that was jazz.”
That sparked inspiration and he sought out as many different styles of older music that he could. “While my friends were listening to gangsta rap or grunge I was listening to this old New Orleans stuff from the 1920s,” he laughs.
Many modern day songs are often about similar subjects to their earlier counterparts – partying, love and dancing. Social issues including the widening gap between the rich and poor in the 20s and then the depression in the 30s also feature. Bradlee takes those aspects into consideration when he’s arranging modern into vintage, wanting to draw parallels in different eras.
It’s usually the lyrics that come first and then Bradlee builds a musical base around it. My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion, made famous by James Cameron’s Titanic, inspired a 1950s doo-wop flavour reminiscent of American soul singer Jackie Wilson. “When you listen to it, it’s still the same song and the same DNA. But it sounds like a different song,” Bradlee says. “We unlock certain aspects of a song that might not be present in the original.”
Other pieces include a swing version of All About That Bass which Bradlee describes as serendipitous; Mo-town inspired Forget You where the “horn lines go by so quickly”, and 1920s “Great Gatsby” Fancy which, in its original form by Iggy Azalea, was electro-hop.
Kiwi Lorde has also been covered by Postmodern Jukebox. Royals was a perfect fit for a seven-foot sad clown called Puddles, whom Bradlee discovered at a small club in New York. Puddles would come on stage holding a lantern and remain silent for a good five minutes. But when he did open his mouth the room was engulfed by a “crazy baritone voice”. Bradlee approached him and suggested they collaborate on a Youtube video. They recorded the video in Bradlee’s living room “James Bond style”. Puddles became an overnight success with the video having more than one million views in 24 hours.
Bradlee has an eye for the interesting. He also incorporates tap dancers into his sets. He says it’s a natural fit. “There’s a rich history back to the swing era. Tap dancers are similar to jazz musicians. They improvise,” he says. “Some people haven’t seen it live and don’t realize how powerful it is. The sound and rhythm that’s created its very infectious… some bands have a light show, we have a tap dancer.”
He hopes it’s not just the tap dancer who will be on their feet for the three concerts being performed in Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington starting this week. He hopes the audience will want to tap their toes, and express themselves to the music that is designed for dancing. “We love the energy that comes from people dancing,” he says. “It’s dance music – all the old styles of music [whether it’s] 1930s jazz or Motown; it’s all dance music so it’s meant to be a party.”