I wonder: do the fan bases of modern comedy and modern jazz overlap at all? At first, it’s hard to imagine two artistic worlds farther apart, with the comedians seeming like unserious goofballs who consider nothing sacred and the jazz players seeming like serious artists who regard their musical tradition as sacred indeed. But look closer and the difference doesn’t seem as stark as all that: comedy and jazz, both performative pursuits, demand from those who want to succeed in them an almost obsessive commitment to improving their craft. And the best practitioners of both, despite acknowledging the importance of learning and building upon the work of their antecedents, have to know when to break from tradition and experiment.
So perhaps H. Jon Benjamin’s new album Well, I Should Have…, which brings comedy and jazz together but not in the way any of us would have expected, comes as something of an inevitability. Benjamin, a comedian best known for doing voices on such animated shows as Archer, Bob’s Burgers, Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist and Home Movies, has put out not a record of sketches or stand-up material, but of actual jazz music, with him sitting at the piano. The comedic element? The album has a subtitle: … Learned to Play the Piano.
“I don’t play piano at all,” Benjamin deadpans in the trailer for Well, I Should Have… at the top of the post. “And I’m not a huge fan of jazz. I never was. And that’s why I thought it would be funny to make a jazz album.” To compensate for his total lack of skill or experience at his instrument, Benjamin brought three genuine jazz professionals into the studio to fill out the quartet: Scott Kreitzer on saxophone, David Finck on bass, and Jonathan Peretz on drums, all of whom do their best to build legitimate compositions around Benjamin’s near-random poking and slapping of the ivories. Here we see — or rather hear — revealed something else in common between comedians and jazz musicians: both need to improvise.
In the end, you could listen to this as either a conceptual comedy album, a conceptual jazz album, or both. You can hear selections from it (though, given the videos’ geo-restriction, that depends on which country you’re in) in the playlist just above. For most of us, showing up to a recording session completely ignorant of the instrument we have to play constitutes the stuff of nightmares, but Benjamin uses it as an opportunity to play a role he calls “Jazz Daredevil.” Does this count as real comedy? It certainly gets me laughing. I’ll leave the other obvious question to the serious jazz aficionados, who seem to enjoy only one thing almost as much as listening to jazz: arguing over what counts as jazz. If Benjamin has a particular joke to make with all this, it may be on them.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.