Reshaping pop songs to fit a jazz mold is a practice decades old. Cole Porter and George and Ira Gershwin were the contemporary pop writers of their days, and their songbooks became part of the jazz repertoire, as did songs from old musicals.
These tunes still sound good. But in a music like jazz that's based on new directions, it presents a musical cul de sac when the young bucks can't get beyond "My Funny Valentine" and "Stella by Starlight." In recent years, however, more jazz players have attempted give pop and rock a modern sense of swing. Most notably, The Bad Plus have brought Nirvana, Black Sabbath and the Pixies to the jazz table.
Pianist Rachel Z has similar ideas, with her trio The Department of Good and Evil, reinterpreting Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails. The Department's latest, self-titled album recasts everyone from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Death Cab for Cutie, Joy Division and The Police in an acoustic setting. It's a bold set, yet it doesn't come off as novelty (the Plus' frequent stumbling block). Nor does it sanitize either the jazziness or the melodic quality of the originals.
When arranging the songs, Rachel Z and drummer Bobbie Rae put a lot of effort into the process. "It's not simply smashing two parts into each other -- section A from the pop tune, section B from the jazz tune," she says in a recent Downbeat article. "The song has to be pliable and contain enough melodic depth to inspire us to take it to other places when reworked."
For example, the Department pairs The Church's "Under the Milky Way" with hints of the expansive piano chords from "Blue in Green" -- the piece by pianist Bill Evans from Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. Both pieces had a pensive mood, and the mash-up, if I dare call it that, works. Elsewhere, Death Cab for Cutie's "Soul Meets Body" swings in 5/4, and "Love Will Tear Us Apart" stands side-by-side with Wayne Shorter's "ESP." And it all makes sense.
King Crimson's Tony Levin plays bass on a few of the tracks, but most of the time, that role is handled by 22-year-old Maeve Royce, who comes equipped with a set of chops and ideas well beyond her years. Perhaps it's wishful thinking, but the Department of Good and Evil's album just might be the generation-gap bridge that brings open-minded young hipsters and their folks together.
The Department of Good and Evil, featuring Rachel Z. 9:30 p.m. Sat., May 19. Gullifty's, 1922 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill. $15. 412-521-8222 or www.gulliftysrestaurant.com