November 9, 2015

A Show and a Chat: Postmodern Jukebox at the State Theatre

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If you’ve ever lamented that you can never listen to Ella Fitzgerald sing live or go back a century and listen to original New Orleans jazz, Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox (PMJ) has you covered. The band takes everything from current pop songs to rock classics and transforms them into vintage styles. As emcee LaVance Colley said at the Ithaca State Theatre on Sunday, Oct. 8, PMJ’s goal is to “take you back to a time when texts were sent by telegraph and autotune meant actually singing on key.”



Some members of the audience took this promise of time travel quite literally, showing up in 1920s clothing and swing dancing in the aisles during the show. Since PMJ has a somewhat niche appeal, almost everyone in attendance for their concerts is either a die-hard fan of the group or of jazz music in general. This created an incredible excitement in the theatre, and nearly every time a musician walked onto the stage, a roar from the crowd followed.

The performers wasted no time getting started — and barely took breathers between songs, either. Within seconds of the lights dimming, the whole band was on stage and musical director Todd Schroeder was slamming away at the keyboard, playing the introduction to Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” as it would have sounded if sung by a flapper in the Roaring Twenties. One by one, five of PMJ’s vocalists came out onto the stage to sing parts of the verses, before they all joined together in harmony for the chorus, accompanied by tap dancer Sarah Reich. Their recorded songs typically feature just one soloist, but when they play live, these same songs are performed by multiple singers or a soloist alongside Reich, adding a twist for followers familiar with their music.

The talent showcased by PMJ is so remarkable that, despite my initial disappointment that arranger and pianist Scott Bradlee wasn’t playing at the concert, the fact didn’t cross my mind at all after the show started. The versatile cast of vocalists topped themselves song after song. When Von Smith, whose vocal range spans more than four octaves, took on a ’20s cover of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses, I texted my friend that it was one of the most impressive vocal displays I had ever heard. The very next song, though — a ’50s soul rendition of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” — featured Colley, whose voice is like that of former American Idol star Adam Lambert on steroids, singing notes higher than most people could reach singing falsetto. Immediately following that was a New Orleans version of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” sung by Haley Reinhart, whose combination of stage presence and a voice that must have been plucked from a time capsule brought the audience to their feet, although not for the first or last time of the night. It was like watching a baseball team hit back-to-back-to-back home runs; not a single song lacked energy or ingenuity.

PMJ boasts not only great musicians, but also fun, creative performers. During Reich’s tap solo, drummer Chip Thomas knelt down next to the tap floor with his sticks and challenged her to a percussion competition. A minute later, bassist Adam Kubota started playing the Star Wars theme, and in no time, the band had launched into an impromptu two-minute Star Wars medley that included the rarely seen “Imperial March” tap dance. Equally impressive, though, was Joey Cook and Aubrey Logan playing the accordion and trombone, respectively, between verses of their own songs.

There was almost too much talent to fit on the stage at once. Luckily, for those in the audience who were overwhelmed trying to soak it all in, the band members each performed final solos during the finale, a Motown version of Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off.” What made this such an enjoyable concert, however, was that the performers looked like they were actually having a blast. The musicians on their first tour with PMJ were especially enthusiastic; they often spontaneously started jumping or dancing while singing. I couldn’t help but remain on my feet for the last 20 minutes of the show.


After their show on Sunday night, The Sun got a chance to chat with some of the members of Postmodern Jukebox about their tour, the process of covering songs and each of their picks for favorite PMJ song:

LaVance Colley, vocals:
The Sun: What’s your favorite part of touring with Postmodern Jukebox?
LaVance Colley: You guys! This is my first tour, so I’ve never experienced people going crazy for me like I was Beyoncé. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that people receive us well, and you guys give us so much energy.
Sun: What has been your favorite place on tour so far?
L.C.: This one has been the best, and I’m not even saying that because I’m doing the interview. So far we’ve done five shows, and this has literally been the best show. You guys came up to the stage, we had people waving their hands, I felt like a star!
Sun: What’s the process of creating a Postmodern Jukebox song?
L.C.: Specifically with the “Halo” video that I did, I came up with the arrangement of the melody. Actually, when we first picked “Halo,” I didn’t want to sing it, because all the other songs I had picked Postmodern Jukebox had already done, and I was like “Damn, I’m not going to do ‘Halo.’” But we arranged it, we lowered the key, and it turned out well, so I’m happy we made that decision.
Sun: How do you decide what style to do each song in?
L.C.: Scott kind of decides that. We literally go to his house, and he sits at the piano, we find a song, say you want to do Justin Bieber, and then he’ll be like, “Okay, Justin Bieber,” and he’ll just start plunking out and playing in a certain way, and then the singer will start singing in a certain way.
Sun: How long does the whole process take?
L.C.: About an hour to get the arrangement, then we pick the arrangement that we have and set it, and then in a few days or a week later, we record it. Scott teaches the band and charts it out, and then I come in, we’ll practice it a few times, and then we’ll do a couple of takes live, and whichever ones we think are the best takes we keep it and put on YouTube.
Sun: How long do you spend rehearsing for one of these shows?
L.C.: We spent two days rehearsing for this show. It’s a lot, but we’ve all worked in this industry before, so we kind of know how it works, and we all learn our stuff before we get to the rehearsal, so when we get to the rehearsal it’ll be cohesive.
Sun: What’s your favorite Postmodern Jukebox song?
L.C.: “Halo.” I mean, duh!

Von Smith, vocals:
Sun: What’s your favorite part of touring with Postmodern Jukebox?
Von Smith: This is going to be really nerdy, but my favorite part is after the show every night looking up all the food that’s going to be at the next location, because I like to wake up excited to eat the local food and drink the local coffee. I’m a food-nerd. I just want to get out and search tomorrow. I mean, aside from obviously getting to play with a great band and sing everyday. I’m very fortunate. It’s a great job.
Sun: If you could pick the next song to cover, what would you sing?
V.S.: It might be cool to do something really drastically different with the new Adele song. I mean, it’s all over the place right now, but that’s a challenge for me to take that song and do something really different with it.
Sun: What is your favorite Postmodern Jukebox song?
V.S.: Oh goodness. My favorite one to do live is “Sweet Child of Mine.” It was originally Miche Braden in the video. Miche Braden is amazing and no one can do it like she can do it, but it’s cool that we all get to try different versions of things. Of the ones that I’ve done personally, probably “Shake it Off,” because I feel like it sticks with people the most. It’s the most fun one, it’s not so much about singing, and it’s a moment in culture to me, because of Taylor Swift.
Sun: What about Rude? That’s your most popular video on YouTube.
V.S.: I probably wouldn’t pick it myself, but I’m glad everyone likes it, and I’ll keep doing it if people like it. I still get joy out of the response I get, it doesn’t matter what it is.

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Haley Reinhart, vocals:
Sun: What’s your favorite part of touring with Postmodern Jukebox?
Haley Reinhart: Getting to travel, and getting a taste of all these different cities. It’s pretty unique and special for us. We get to see what we like, and maybe come back and explore even further. It’s one of my favorite parts, and the theatres themselves are really historic and beautiful.
Sun: Have any artists specifically influenced you in creating your distinct singing style?
H.R.: I have a lot of older influences, but I also grew up singing in my parents’ band since I was a really young child. They’ve done everything: Rock and roll, blues, jazz, funk, kind of everything, so I kind of grew up in a world of music.
Sun: What’s the process of recording a Postmodern Jukebox song?
H.R.: I do a lot of the one-takes. I think that there’s such a magic to the first take you do, and a lot of the time that’s the one we end up keeping. And I like to also work with Scott on the arrangements, and just talk to each other about what we can do to make it as good as it can be and as true to myself as it can be, so he’s very wonderful that way, having it be a collaboration.
Sun: What’s your favorite Postmodern Jukebox song?
H.R.: At the moment, I enjoy doing “Seven Nation Army” a lot. I just think it’s really slick and cool and fun.

Ben Golder-Novick, saxophone:
Sun: What’s your favorite part of touring with Postmodern Jukebox?
Ben Golder-Novick: Number one, being able to see all the different cities and towns all over the country and the world. That’s honestly my favorite, but the second part is the energy of playing on stage.
Sun: Do you have a favorite place that you’ve played?
B.G.N.: Honestly, this is my first time playing in Ithaca, so I was very excited to play here tonight because my uncle lives here, and we’ve never gotten to do this! We’ve been talking about this for years, and now it happened, so that’s awesome. We also played in Singapore, and that was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Sun: What’s something special about playing with Postmodern Jukebox that’s different from from usual performances?
B.G.N.: For one, they’re my longtime friends. Adam Kubota and Scott Bradlee, we all went to music school together, the Hartt School of Music. So I think the friendships is one, but just the fact that we’re simultaneously improvising the parts, but also that there’s such a big plan that we’re doing. The combination of improvisation and structure is different from anything else.
Sun: How much of what you play is improvised?
B.G.N.: For instance, the first song we did, “Fancy,” we always follow the same exact form, probably the same exact three minutes and 44 seconds, but in the first and second verses, we’re always improvising the horns section, so it’s always different. So the form is always the same, but the improvising is always different. I’d say half the songs are like that.
Sun: What’s your favorite Postmodern Jukebox song?
B.G.N.: We didn’t actually play it tonight, but “The Greatest Love of All.” That’s with Mykal Kilgore in the video. As far as what we did tonight, my favorite was “Burn.” That’s the one where I play between my legs.

Adam Kubota, bass:
Sun: What’s your favorite part of touring with Postmodern Jukebox?
Adam Kubota: Playing the shows in different places is nice. It’s really nice to go to a place where you’ve never been before but people know you, so you get to see it in a different capacity then you would if I just rolled into Ithaca on a camping trip. You get to meet people.
Sun: What’s the process of creating a Postmodern Jukebox song?
A.K.: This is really in the domain of Scott Bradlee. He’s really the mastermind, but there’s a variety of processes. Some of them Scott has an idea to do a song because it’s doing really well in the charts, it’s hot, or sometimes you want to pick what’s called an evergreen song, a song that’s always popular, like “Sweet Child of Mine.” So maybe you have a good idea, or you collaborate with the singer, and they’re like “Well I’m thinking this song, what kind of spin would you put on this song?” So there’s not really one way to do it, like sometimes Scott will hear one thing and then lift an idea from a jazz standard, for example in “Bad Blood,” he’s never told me this, but it’s pretty clear that at the end, he borrowed from a Duke Ellington song called “Rockin’ in Rhythm.”
Sun: What’s your favorite Postmodern Jukebox song?
A.K.: I can’t really pick a favorite, but I do enjoy playing “Bad Blood,” because we haven’t played it very much, and it’s really got some stuff to play in it. It feels like playing a nice, modern big band chart. I think it’s a very creative, very fleshed-out arrangement of a song, and I also like that album, and I like the Ryan Adams version of that album.