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Five Ways Jazz Can Be Punk

The quartet Garage a Trois.
Michael Weintrob
Courtesy of the artist
The quartet Garage a Trois.

Jazz is a sponge for outside sounds. Add another idea to it — say, European classical or gospel-inflected R&B music — and it absorbs, assimilating the sound into a new subgenre: like "third stream" or "soul jazz," respectively. Wring it out, and its own improvisatory essence remains in the mix.

It's hard to imagine something that could be further in sound and structure from jazz than punk rock, but punk and jazz do have elements in common — the most important being attitude. Whether it came from the boundary-pushing free jazz of the late '50s or the experimental electronic sounds of the late '60s and '70s, the spirit of adventure, creativity and thumbing one's nose at "the rules" has always been a part of jazz's historical trajectory.

Here are five possibilities for how that attitude might sound. Some might argue that the songs in this sampler owe their sound structure more to the New York-born subgenre known as "no-wave" than to true punk rock. But for our purposes, let's just call it punk jazz.

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Five Ways To Mix Jazz And Punk

The Lounge Lizards (1980)

"Incident on South Street"

From 'Lounge Lizards'

Obviously, there's some Charles Mingus influence here — that repetitive piano line is reminiscent of the bassist's "Boogie Stop Shuffle." But the angular guitar is safely in the domain of bands like Wire or Gang of Four. The Lounge Lizards' founder, John Lurie, is a consummate artist, working in film, fine art, music and more.

This album is available via Amazon MP3 or iTunes.

James Chance (1982)


From 'Twist Your Soul: The Definitive Collection'

James Chance (also known as James White) fused free jazz with the pure soul power of James Brown and wound up with his own aggressive style of music. His in-your-face singing and saxophone style, paired with his often-dapper attire, made for quite a spectacle on stage.

John Zorn (1989)

"You Will Be Shot"

From 'Naked City'

John Zorn's prolific recording career, along with his penchant for pushing boundaries, makes it possible to place him in almost every conceivable category of music. Many, however, associate him with the sound heard on this album. The legendary composer and instrumentalist drives an aggressive brand of jazz, with a young Bill Frisell on guitar.

Blue Cranes (2009)

"Ritchie Bros."

From 'Observatories'

The first time I saw Portland's Blue Cranes live, I walked away trying to compare what I'd seen to anything I'd encountered before. I couldn't do it, and I still can't — the band is a force of nature. But there's certainly a punk or hardcore sensibility to its take on jazz.

Garage a Trois (2011)

"Resentment Incubator"

From 'Always Be Happy, But Stay Evil'

This quartet — Skerik on tenor sax, Marco Benevento on keys, Stanton Moore on drums and Mike Dillon on vibes — hits hard, both live and on record. Their shows are some of the most raucous experiences I've ever associated with jazz music.

Matt Fleeger
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