BETHESDA — It would seem the year is 1940. A swing band in small combo enters stage right. Art Deco curtain swags sport elegantly as the backdrop. Lovely women vocalists (“girl singers,” in the parlance of the day) come out in fashionable dresses of bygone Hollywood glamour. Then a jam session begins of jazz all-stars, featuring the music of Blondie, Michael Jackson and Pharrell Williams.
Wait! That’s not right! How is this possible?
These rock-era performers arrived on the commercial music scene long after the wane of the swing era some seventy or eighty years ago. It is here we arrive at postmodernism, a philosophical and artistic movement embedded in a non-linear approach to contemporary life. Postmodernism rejects grand narratives and fixed hierarchies of values. In practice, this allows for gleeful “mash-ups” of songs and styles from various periods, and this is the context in which Postmodern Jukebox should be understood.
Postmodern Jukebox is not simply a band; rather, it is a rotating collection of mostly young jazz musicians and vocalists who perform contemporary songs in the swing, doo-wop and country-western styles of the not-too-distant American past. The ensemble has become a YouTube sensation led by pianist and arranger Scott Bradlee. Bradlee’s aggregation of nearly 100 performers in various combinations has been touring the world lately in small numbers, most recently for an evening at Strathmore Music Center.
The night we attended, Bradlee was not on stage. Rather, Casey Abrams served as Master of Ceremonies, opening with a postmodern vocal treat not juxtaposing but combining Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” with Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher.” This was a rock concert devoid of rock n’ roll music, as the highly energetic Mr. Abrams rushed up and down the aisles, spotlighting surprised audience members (though not asking them to sing). He then physically lifted musician Ben Golder-Novick as the latter played a wailing blues saxophone.
The performers (and indeed some audience members) were dressed in period 1940s styles, though Abrams – soulfully rendering in Radiohead’s 1992 lyrics “I’m a creep! I’m a weirdo!” – literally let down his hair (and beard), appearing more like one of the musicians of the ZZ Top rock group than, say, Frank Sinatra of yore. At about this point, we also heard Jazz Variations on the Harry Potter Theme, performed in a striking style reminiscent of the swing-era small combo Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street.
Abrams (and other PMJ singers, particularly the powerfully voiced Miche Braden) also sung admirably on Meghan Trainor’s “All About the Bass,” which predictably featured many jazz bass lines! PMJ has produced several versions of this song, making it one of their signature pieces. An unexpected delight was the sound of 1940s jazz ballad styles, heard in versions of One Direction’s “Story of My Life,” Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” and Tove Los “Habits,” sung in 1940s “bombshell” style alternating between Miche Braden, Natalie Angst, and Hannah Gill.
The closing piece, Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom,” featured all of the musicians and singers in a fabulous send-out to the concert, with the performers at times recalling the stylistics of vintage singing groups like the Andrews Sisters and the Modernaires. (In good postmodern style, no program was provided to the audience, sometimes making it difficult to match specific performers to particular performances.)
For those curious about what Postmodern Jukebox would sound like playing actual swing and pop standards of the past, the “Evolution of Tap Dance” performance gave an idea as expert tap dancer Demi Remick tapped spectacularly to “Maple Leaf Rag” from the age of ragtime through “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “In the Mood” of the swing era, from Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Wave” of the 1960s bossa nova period through staples of the disco craze of the 1970s.
PMJ concerts seem to rotate members. As mentioned earlier, PMJ founder Scott Bradlee (author of “Outside the Jukebox: How I Turned My Vintage Music Obsession into My Dream”) was not present at our show, nor was Robyn Adele Anderson, one of the most popular PMJ singers. This cast rotation is important to remember when attending a PMJ performance; one is not coming to see any one musician or even a fixed production, but rather for an ever-varying postmodern musical experience.
While Postmodern Jukebox appeared only one evening at Strathmore, the group travels widely and will have other shows in the Mid-Atlantic region. In the meantime, PMJ performances can be heard on YouTube, music streaming services, and compact discs. And of course 33 1/3 long-play vinyl records—after all, how could their music be postmodern without including this retro format?
Leaving postmodern irreverence aside, performances of Postmodern Jukebox are highly recommended, and for multiple reasons. First of all, they provide a means to hear various musical styles, so that fans can meet and share the strengths of various traditions in fluid and often splendidly surprising ways. Yet most of all, PMJ puts on a wonderfully fun show, offering both high-energy performances and musical wit, with an overwhelmingly positive audience response.
Music fans who enjoy genre-bending music may wish to explore the upcoming Trans-Siberian Orchestra shows, scheduled for 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Dec. 23 at the Capital One Arena. TSO fuses classical and rock styles into a classically-themed heavy metal extravaganza, with a good mix thrown in of the spirit of the upcoming holidays in a show called “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve!”