Saxophonist Bobby Muncy brings the Radiohead Jazz Project to Cliff Bells

Feb 6, 2019 at 1:00 am
Saxophonist Bobby Muncy.
Saxophonist Bobby Muncy. Photo courtesy of Bobby Muncy

One thing is true of both jazz musicians and Radiohead fans — they can be very outspoken about their obsessions. If you engage with them, the topics of either jazz or Radiohead will inevitably become the center of the conversation, and rarely is there room for disagreement or opportunity to shift topics. You will be forced to choose between Charles Mingus and Miles Davis (Tip: You will be right, no matter who you pick), and if asked about your favorite Radiohead song, whatever you do, never say "Creep."

Then there's Bobby Muncy. The esteemed 42-year-old saxophonist holds court in the classical jazz world and as a Radiohead head, which is why he has dedicated several performances each year over the course of 12 years to his ensemble, the Radiohead Jazz Project.

"I'm a snob," Muncy admits.

That discerning taste could explain what has drawn Muncy to the cross-section of jazz/Radiohead fandom, as Muncy is candid about throwing much of the popular music of the past 10 to 15 years under the bus, calling it "uninteresting."

"I wonder what is stopping music from evolving? Like when did music not become an art?" he says. "This bothers me a lot. I don't begrudge anybody making music that people will buy. I'm not going to tell anybody what they should or should not record. That's not my issue. My issue is that when I turn on the radio, man, I have to listen to this shit."

The musically omnivorous Muncy winces at the mention of Soundcloud rap, and only sort of brags about having once seen Metallica at the Button South in Fort Lauderdale. However, for Muncy, jazz has always been at the forefront. He earned an undergrad degree in jazz studies, a master's degree in jazz saxophone performance, and a doctorate in classical saxophone performance which led to teaching advanced music theory for years.

Born in Chicago, Muncy spent his formative years in Miami before moving to D.C., where he started a nonprofit collective for aspiring jazz composers, while also traveling frequently to play gigs in New York. He's performed on cruise ships and in retirement homes, has linked up with Afro-funk bands, and once did a tour with a band through Haiti where he almost died. "Don't ask," he says.

Despite his love of jazz, though, Muncy says the world of jazz academia can be somewhat stifling.

"If you think that the jazz world is incestuous, the classical saxophone world is even more so," he says of his classical training. "The only reason you studied classical saxophone is to teach other classical saxophonists to become classical saxophonists. Jazz musicians are funny people. They're weird people. No, like, they're actually weird people."

And that comes at an expense, he says. "That's the thing about jazz school, they sort of, like, beat it into your head — tradition, tradition," he says. "You have to play Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk. [The students] become world-class musicians, but you turn to them and ask, well, do you know, 'Wish You Were Here?' Have you ever listened to Pink Floyd? I like pop music, I like rock music. I don't want to ignore it."

Muncy says Radiohead first struck a chord with him in 2007 when he traveled from New York with his then-very stoned and very sleepy trumpet player who happened to have Radiohead's newly released seventh record In Rainbows in tow. A turning point for the band, the emotional dexterity of In Rainbows sparked an idea in Muncy as he obsessed over a hidden jazz waltz within "Nude" — the album's hopeless ballad.

"I'm driving and the first tune comes on, then second tune, then 'Nude,'" he says. "I kept playing repeat, repeat. I remember thinking, who writes this? It's one of those rare times that I listened to the lyrics and I'm like, shit man," he says. "This is, like, actually genuinely heart-wrenching for me." He adds: "I like sad shit."

Soon after, he and the trumpet player hurled themselves into a literal Radiohead songbook before each picking seven songs to arrange with the intention of playing a few casual shows with a new ensemble around the D.C. area. The challenge was finding songs that fit. When it comes to running a song through what Muncy calls a "jazz filter" — whether it be rock, pop, R&B, or Radiohead — it comes down to melodic content. "It has to have some kind of harmonic complexity and thickness already," he says.

Muncy considers "Daydreaming" from Radiohead's polarizing 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool a good example of this, which he says relates to a Mexican compositional concept.

"It's sort of like it's in three, two, and six all at the same time in different time signatures, you know?" he says, tapping on the table. "And then you compound that with the fact that the melody is just gorgeous. Like for example, they'll play like a major triad and then start on the flat six above and move down by a half step, and that's the kind of stuff I listened for — that's heart-wrenching and beautiful, and these are the devices they use."

When creating a jazz interpretation of the songs, Muncy says he didn't want to change their emotion or "groove." Instead, each piece is arranged to allow each player — Detroit's Radiohead Ensemble also includes Mike Jellick on piano, David Dunham on guitar and effects, Joe Fee on bass, and Stuart Lyons on drums — to improvise and stretch. Muncy says he doesn't necessarily look for songs that he could force into becoming a jazz song — rather, he hones in on pre-existing undertones, of which he says there are many.

"When you listen to, like, Kid A and Amnesiac, I mean during that time period they were actually listening to a lot of Miles Davis, they were listening to Bitches Brew," he says. "They were listening to Mingus. They were in that mindset. They use Eastern instruments, trying to make it sound like John and Alice Coltrane. Then, of course, all the brass stuff that sounds like a New Orleans dirge."

The most recognizable jazz moment from Radiohead's discography is the frenzied and cacophonic "The National Anthem," which features an eight-person brass section that notably draws inspiration from Art Ensemble of Chicago's "Theme de Yo-Yo." Radiohead's rock guitar virtuoso Jonny Greenwood spoke to this in a 2001 article in Jazz Times, citing Bitches Brew as being a direct inspiration during the conception of 2000's Kid A.

"We love all the atmosphere and chaos on Bitches Brew," Greenwood told the Times. "The fat, dirty sound of two electric pianos and the [multiple] drummers. That's why Bitches Brew is so good, beyond just Miles' trumpet playing. We love how he got together that sense of chaos."

Chaos is something Muncy can relate to. While he will be returning to D.C. in the spring following a brief move to Ann Arbor, he's brewing a whole batch of ideas, none of which involve Radiohead. On his list: a record of duets and a record of avant-garde music. He's also working on writing his symphony, which has become his prime focus along with expanding his work with the D.C. Jazz Composers Collective. As of right now, a Radiohead Jazz Project record comes in at "number five or six " on his his list of priorities, in part due to logistics, royalties, and the fact that it remains one of his many outlets.

"I only do this project once every four, five months because after I do a night of it, I'm done," he says. "I want to go play original music, I want to go play standards. I want to go play with a rock band or an R&B band. I thought about it for years, I was just sort of like, you know what, I want to arrange a bunch of Pink Floyd tunes and do a Pink Floyd Jazz Project because that music works, too. It's always a matter of what do I have time for right now."

Bobby Muncy's Radiohead Jazz Project will perform at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 10 at Cliff Bells; 2030 Park Ave., Detroit; 313-961-2543;; Tickets are $10.

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