Comedian H. Jon Benjamin is releasing a jazz album this week on Sub Pop Records. The album features Scott Kreitzer on saxophone, David Finck on bass, Jonathan Peretz on drums, and Benjamin on piano. H. Jon Benjamin does not know how to play the piano.
When the video announcing this album released, it was indeed quite funny, evoking the same tropes of many contemporary jazz musicians’ EPKs. Those in the scene know this video. It’s a satire, and a seemingly effective one, of so many jazz releases. The approach is straight ahead. The rest of this band are all middle-aged and white, which could help explain the straight-ahead approach if it. Odeon Pope makes an appearance, as if to say that this is all cool since a master looks like he gave his blessing. However, like some jokes when one thinks about them further, this one doesn’t hold under scrutiny.
Satire is a form of comedy that functions from subversion, intentionally circumventing the Amoean hermeneutic circle by noting the author’s implied intention in the work is at the fore while not necessarily articulating the intention, at least not overtly. Thus, authorial intent is paramount and can only be ascertained from the quality of the work’s construction. For example, when considering how Black Dynamite is such an effective satire of blaxploitation films, one must note how dedicated Michael Jai White and Scott Sanders were in not merely spoofing the genre but almost playing it straight and letting the inherent humor in the genre shine through out of modest amplification. To play the genre straight, one must know the genre– delve into its canon, understand its tropes, harken back to them out of reverence in order to show their purity (and maybe even make a score that’s as dope as the movie by making a soundtrack that can stand on its own as much as the movie can). Good satire comes from knowing the source.
H. Jon Benjamin doesn’t know the source latent in the genre that he is satirizing. This can be okay. Benjamin’s brand of comedy often comes from absurdism and frequently comes from him appearing as the butt of the joke himself. In his new album, Well, I Should Have…*, the joke is most certainly in the subtitle– *Learned to Play Piano. Benjamin is fine being the joke, and this does in fact make the joke funny, but considering what he’s doing is satire, is the form that he is satirizing in on the joke? In the preparation for the album, this was not the intended backing band; saxophonist saxophonist Steve Lehman’s trio was initially approached. After the terms weren’t deemed up to snuff, Lehman decided not to go with the two day session and the gig went to Kreitzer, Finck, and Peretz. It’s interesting thinking of what Lehman, et al. would have made with Benjamin. His spectral harmonies could have danced over Benjamin’s clanging in some fascinating new way (and likely could pull away from the joke Benjamin was attempting to make, but that’s all speculation now). It’s fine, it’s an alright gig, this joke is indeed funny. However, this is a group of folks who have helped facilitate what is essentially an easy joke.
Those who make fun of jazz seem to make the same jokes– they talk about the same middle-aged white folks making it now; they call up the names of legends past and passed away; they bring up a sound that’s very straight ahead and joke about a sound that contrasts it by going “out” without understanding how the sounds connect; dated, corny slang rears its head. They’re easy jokes, easier than Jimmy Fallon lazily commenting on Gov. Chris Christie’s corpulence (seriously, Tonight Show writers’ room, fat jokes are lazy writing, cut it out). This isn’t the Jazz is the Worst Twitter account that’s waaaay too inside baseball to actually hate the genre, or at least not have a love/hate relationship with it. This isn’t Dave King’s Rational Funk.
H. Jon Benjamin is making a joke born from ignorance, and is more than happy to do so. He doesn’t listen to jazz. He’s not a fan of it. He doesn’t know how to play it, but he’s making a jazz album anyway. That’s kinda funny. But for what is ultimately a surface level joke, it’s not that funny. Funny enough for a bunch of YouTube views, probably not enough for a $10 download. I’d advise against copping it on vinyl, either.
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.