Keeping Track: Five Jazz-Influenced Punk Albums
by Chad Jewett
Minutemen – Double Nickels On A Dime (1984)
The legendary San Pedro, California trio Minutemen thrived in one of punk’s most orthodox, minimalist eras by throwing themselves into both their jazz-and-funk infused hardcore and their dogged touring schedule with manic determination. The band specialized in quick, cerebral genre mash-ups that were punk in their economy, bravery, and spirit rather than in aesthetic literalism. While bands like Black Flag and Minor Threat were defining the era of early-80s punk with thick, whittled hardcore, the Minutemen’s absolutely classic Double Nickels On A Dime managed to balance the bursting energy of Reagan-era punk rock with incredibly nimble grooves and taut musicianship. Songs like “D.’s Car Jam / Anxious Mo-Fo” and “Nothing Indeed” were both ultra-dense and light on their feet, anticipating the angularity of post-hardcore (you can especially hear the band’s mark in Dischord greats Beefeater and Fugazi) by cutting hardcore’s heft with springy bop jazz. Released in 1984 by SST Records, who had just released the sludgy My War by Black Flag and Metal Circus by Hüsker Dü, Double Nickels On A Dime anticipated a way forward for punk rock by leavening the genre with the flexibility and nuance of jazz and hard 70s funk.
The Nation of Ulysses – Plays Pretty For Baby (1992)
Clearly infatuated with a 1960s mod culture that embraced jazz, soul, and beat poetry, and perpetually cloaked in the sort of sleek, tailored suits you might see James Baldwin, John Coltrane, or Sam Cooke decked out in, Nation of Ulysses brought rhythm and style to the post-hardcore’s first wave. On 1992’s just-about-perfect Plays Pretty For Baby, the band rockets between MC5-indebted garage rock, ultra-sharp Stax soul, and wild, bleating post-bop jazz with reckless abandon. Take “A Comment On Ritual”, which spends its first half in the rumbling, flexible register of Jawbox or Drive Like Jehu (who were doing their best work at around the same time), only to suddenly clear out space for a pair of caterwauling horns. Elsewhere, “50,000 Watts Of Goodwill” is so loose-limbed and kinetic that it feels like its about to burst into free-form noise at any moment, marking a conceptual and spiritual connection to free jazz greats like Ornette Coleman – who Nation of Ulysses tip their hat to on the raucous, Dadaist “The Sound of Jazz To Come”.
Karate – The Bed Is In The Ocean (1998)
Something of a bridge between the ultra-precise post-rock of bands like Slint and the jazz-timed emo of American Football and Pele, Boston quartet Karate played measured, melodic indie rock that traded in the bright, radiant tunefulness of popular jazz artists like Vince Guaraldi, elsewhere recalling the spacious late-night moods of Red Garland. The Bed Is In The Ocean is one of the band’s best albums, and one of its most expansive. And while Karate’s taste for jazz’s textures, complex rhythms, and prizing of mood and groove was never quite as overt or explosive as Minutemen, you can still hear plenty of post-bop imagination in “The Same Stars” and “Not To Call The Police”, songs that move to their own idiosyncratic sense of time.
Refused – The Shape of Punk to Come (1998)
If the title of Refused’s magnum opus – which, like Nation of Ulysses, references Ornette Coleman – wasn’t a tip-off to the free-jazz imagination of The Shape of Punk to Come, then a few minutes spent with the album ought to do it. “Worms Of The Senses / Faculties Of The Skull” (which name-checks jazz-era Beat great Allen Ginsberg) explodes like the hardcore/soul/jazz riots of Nation of Ulysses, amplified to a global scale. The song manages to move its enormous wallop with striking athleticism, managing sudden moments of open space that quickly curl into giant crescendos, noisy slow-builds, and one final, searing plateau. Elsewhere, “Deadly Rhythm” begins with a quick passage of bop before cutting into its angular hardcore attack, and later devotes its middle eight to a jazzy walking bass-line and liquid, improvisatory drumming. And on the album’s apocalyptic finale, “The Apollo Programme Was A Hoax”, Refused devote the entirety of the song to slinky, Mingus-esque standup bass. One of the three or four greatest post-hardcore albums ever recorded, The Shape of Punk to Come remains a classic for its imagination, and for the way it blended an expansive, Leftist politics with a wildly flexible ear for genre experimentation.
Pele – The Nudes (2000)
On Elephant, the Polyvinyl debut from post-rock greats Pele, the band largely offered an instrumental version of the kind of shimmering, rhythmically-spry emo developed and perfected by the likes of Cap’n Jazz, Joan of Arc, and American Football. But the band managed to bend that aesthetic into an altogether more cerebral and adventurous direction on 2000’s The Nudes. Songs like “Visit Pumpy” still had the bright, footloose excitability of Cap’n Jazz, but unspooled above a bed of sizzling, sinewy bop drums. Elsewhere, “Monkey Monkey Las Vegas” is practically modal in the way it hammers away at single chords as the rhythm section slides and curls into new and different grooves. Contemporary bands like Two Knights – whose excellent debut full-length Shut Up has all the rhythmic flexibility and instinctive sense of space and mood that marks most of the records on this list – have clearly metabolized the jazz-inflected post-emo sounds of Pele, just as Pele once took the innovations of Joan of Arc and Karate and ran with them.