Clap your hands and say ‘Já’
The Bjorkestra creates new jazz standards from the catalog of Iceland’s postmodern Piaf
Those unfamiliar with jazz repertoire might assume that the adaptation of pop songs by jazz artists is nothing but a contemporary nod to the music industry’s growing obsession with crossover popularity. Or, simply put, that the “kids” these days are just too lazy to write their own tunes. In fact, the reinterpretation of existing music is a venerable part of the jazz MO. Art Blakey took on “Moon River,” and Hank Mobley covered the schmaltzy “Three Coins in the Fountain.” So, when 18 jazz musicians get onstage and launch into Björk’s “Hyperballad,” is it a big deal or not? And what if they play arrangements of Björk songs exclusively?
The New York-based Bjorkestra (officially, they omit the umlaut) is a traditionally outfitted big band, with a full horn section and rock-solid rhythm players. Led by alto-sax player and lead arranger Travis Sullivan, the lineup features a number of regular members, offset by session players when scheduling precludes participation.
The project began unwittingly about 10 years ago with a single arrangement by Sullivan, of the aforementioned “Hyperballad,” for a vocalist he was working with. The intention of tapping into Björk’s larger catalog, which Sullivan has called “fertile ground for improvisers,” grew slowly. The band debuted at New York’s Knitting Factory only as recently as 2004.
The Bjorkestra repertoire now stands at around 15 songs, taken from all six of Björk’s studio albums. The focus is, not surprisingly, on many of Björk’s more approachable—and consequently catchy—numbers, such as “Army of Me” and the no-brainer “It’s Oh So Quiet,” both from 1995’s Post. Still, the Bjorkestra hasn’t been frightened off by more idiosyncratic works, like “Who Is It” from Medúlla or “Cocoon” from Vespertine, extracting the essential melodic material and tailoring the harmonic background to fit its instrumentation. The arrangements retain the physicality inherent in Björk’s songs, and the playing itself, on “Enjoy,” for example, compliments the sensual nature of both her subject matter and her sound.
The musicians of the Bjorkestra perform a dual role, fulfilling the expectations of audience members who come to hear key snippets of Björk’s music, such as the mesmerizing bass line from “Army of Me,” while also playing essential parts that aren’t as explicit in the original compositions. The contribution of intrepid vocalist Becca Stevens, an avowed Björk fan, is obviously the most challenging: to perform material that appears inextricably tied to its originator without stooping to gimmicks. She does just that, taking on difficult works and conveying a sense of enjoyment in the task. Quite firm on the point of avoiding mimicry, Stevens nevertheless admits that some of the lyrics are constructed to fit rhythms that are natural to Björk’s diction and can only be performed as such. She points to “Human Behavior” as just such a tune. The distinctive phrasing in Björk’s songs, part affect and part accent, was one of the key factors that drew Sullivan to her music.
The Bjorkestra is no cornball tribute band, full of wide-eyed fans who can only approach the music in adoration. In Björk’s fan base, the militant, nitpicking, trivia-gorged idolaters are legion, and they’re a multitude that’s bound to be shocked by the reserve shown toward her original music by some members of the orchestra. Reed player and flutist Arun Luthra, who’s been with the group since its inception, admitted that prior to reading through Sullivan’s arrangements, he “was virtually unaware” of Björk’s work. The same was true for drummer Joe Abbatantuono, who added, “I was pretty shocked that I had been missing out on such artistic music.” Both have since become quite knowledgeable about her catalog, and, in fact, the ability of these arrangements to reach non-fans and send them back to the originals to see what they’ve overlooked could be the Bjorkestra’s raison d’être.