The music of the inventive and popular English alternative rock band Radiohead gets a major makeover in Lawrence University’s ambitious Radiohead Jazz Project.
A dozen Radiohead songs, rearranged for large jazz ensemble format by an international array of composers, make their world premiere March 8-9 in a pair of performances by the Lawrence University Jazz Ensemble and the Lawrence University Jazz Band. The concerts, at 8 p.m. both nights in Stansbury Theatre of the Music-Drama Center, are free and open to the public, but tickets are required. Contact the Lawrence Box Office, 920-832-6749.
The project was hatched last summer, when Fred Sturm, Lawrence’s director of jazz studies and improvisational music and colleague Patty Darling, director of the jazz band, discussed the feasibility of a Radiohead large jazz ensemble arranging initiative to bring added relevancy to the music their students play.
“I’ve heard too many collegiate jazz concerts that don’t include a single selection composed within the lifetime of the students,” said Sturm. “I want my students to be able perform the music of their time, not just the music of their forebears. Radiohead has been an international phenomenon for 25 years. Our students grew up with their music. The jazz-influenced works of Radiohead seemed the perfect focus for a jazz big band program.”
Darling, in collaboration with Williamette University’s James Miley, who was among the first to arrange Radiohead works for the large jazz ensemble, compiled a list of more than a dozen Radiohead tunes they felt best lent themselves to jazz ensemble. Among the choices were the hits “Kid A,” “Idioteque,” “Knives Out,” and “Paranoid Android.”
To generate the music, Sturm recruited an international group of jazz arrangers — Germany’s Florian Ross and Sherisse Rogers, staff arranger for the Netherlands’ Metropole Orchestra — as well as young American composers with an affinity for Radiohead’s music, including collegiate jazz faculty members from California, Texas, Oregon, Kansas and Iowa. Sturm and Darling each contributed one arrangement to the project as well.
“This project has been a wonderful opportunity for musical growth,” said Darling. “The students get to experience firsthand how these talented writers approach Radiohead’s music, how they alter the forms and harmonic structures and orchestrate for jazz ensemble. We are hoping that this project can serve as a kind of primer for contemporary arranging and composing.”
Many jazz solo artists and small ensembles have recorded Radiohead songs, including pianist Brad Mehldau (“Exit Music from a Film,” “Knives Out”), saxophonist Chris Potter (“Morning Bell”) and singer Jamie Cullum (“High and Dry”).
“Radiohead songs are among the ‘new standards’ being explored by jazz soloists and combos,” said Sturm, “and packaging them for the large jazz ensemble is a logical progression. This project is the first grand-scale effort to arrange multiple Radiohead compositions for the jazz big band.”
Formed in 1985, Radiohead released its first album in 1993 and achieved notoriety in their native United Kingdom shortly thereafter. International recognition followed shortly and in 2005, the five-member band was ranked 73rd in Rolling Stone’s list of “The Greatest Artists of All Time.” Many consider Radiohead the most inventive and successful band in the modern rock era.
In recent years, the band has traded conventional instrumentation and standard song forms for rhythms and grooves seldom found in the rock genre. Radiohead lead guitarist and principal arranger Jonny Greenwood claims the band draws many conceptual elements from jazz.
“We bring in our favorite jazz albums and say: ‘We want to do this.’ That’s what we do and that’s what bands have always done, since the late ’50s — a bunch of guys in England listening to American blues records and copying them. In our case, it’s jazz.”
Radiohead’s latest CD, “King of Limbs,” released in mid-February, has drawn praise for its jazz influences. In its review, The Chicago Tribune says “The new Radiohead never resolves the friction between the physical freedom of dance music and the carefully constructed architecture of more insular, inward looking art-pop. Its reference points are abstract jazz-fusion albums that implied funk without actually embracing it: Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew,” Herbie Hancock’s “Sextant.” That’s heady, serious territory.”
Following the March premiere, the Radiohead Jazz Project will be performed at three of the nation’s top collegiate jazz programs: the University of North Texas, University of Miami and the Eastman School of Music. Sierra Music Publications, one of the major publishers of large jazz ensemble music, will distribute the print music as a series in the fall. In September, the HR Big Band in Frankfurt, Germany will record and tour with the project.
“We think we’re onto something very special,” said Sturm. “There’s tremendous enthusiasm afoot among professional ensembles, university programs and high school jazz ensembles about this music. We hope it will have a great future and we hope that audiences will love it, too.”