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Andrew Bird's 'Sunday Morning Put-On' revisits a golden age of jazz

Andrew Bird released a new album "Sunday Morning Put-On." (Alexa Viscius)
Andrew Bird released a new album "Sunday Morning Put-On." (Alexa Viscius)

Andrew Bird‘s new album is his take on nine jazz standards from a bygone era, but he says he approached tunes like “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” and “I Fall in Love Too Easily” as if they were his own.

The album’s title “Sunday Morning Put-On” refers to an earlier era of Bird’s life, when he would stay up all night listening to jazz on WBEZ as a 20-something in Chicago.

Living in a cheap apartment hotel in Edgewater mostly inhabited by Jesuit priests and nuns from Loyola University, Bird stayed up listening to 78 recordings of blues and gospel music on the show “Blues Before Sunrise” until 4 a.m.  When he woke up in the morning, he turned on a show that played hits from the ‘golden era’ of jazz.

“I was just discovering this whole world through this radio show. I never wanted to miss it,” Bird says. “From midnight through Sunday afternoon, I’d just be immersed in this world of early blues to jazz.”

Watch on YouTube.

7 questions with Andrew Bird

Why come back to these songs at this stage in your life?

“My first couple records were in the sort of early jazz idiom, but I was writing original tunes. Well, basically between my main Andrew Bird albums, I create these little sabbaticals for myself where I scratch some itch. Like last winter, I said, ‘I really want to see after all these years of listening, how far have I developed as an improviser?’

“I really just kind of immersed myself into like Coleman Hawkins solo on ‘Body and Soul’ or Lester Young playing ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.’ And, there’s periods where I step back from my songwriting world and just do a little project like that because it’ll kind of make the next songwriting album more interesting.”

How do you think about putting your own stamp on these songs?

“That’s what we ask ourselves when we’re recording it. I felt [finally] I had a point of view on these songs. First of all, there just isn’t a great jazz violin vocal album from that period.  Same reason violin isn’t very prevalent in a lot of rock music. It just can’t compete with volume.

“But that’s why it’s a trio. It’s so quiet and there’s a lot of space for the full frequency range of the violin to sound rich and full.  But as far as how we approach these songs and the arrangements, as much as I’ve listened to jazz, I’m still kind of an outsider to the mainstream jazz world. I feel like I can come at it from a songwriter’s perspective and say, ‘Hey, this is really cool.

This is worth listening to.’ And then have a perspective on it.”

Are you picking the violin in “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To”?

“Yeah, it’s just kind of a percussive thwack. A lot of times when I’m playing with a drummer, we’ll try to play off each other rhythmically. That little figure that you heard there, it was just kind of an original melody that kind of popped up that I improvised at the time. And then I thought,  ‘Hmm, that’s a good figure. Let’s put that at the end of the song too.’ And it becomes sort of the hook.

“I still can’t get away from approaching this material like my own material. I’m looking for a new melody and that’s the way I approach improvisation and writing in general. It’s just like, we’re creating new melodies. We’re composing very fast. That’s what improvisation means to me. It’s like very fast composition.”

Do you ever listen to your own music and think about where you’ve come from?

“I do. I don’t actively seek it out. Sometimes I hear it in public spaces or wherever and I’m like,  especially the old jazz music, jazz stuff I was playing in my 20s, it’s funny.

“It’s very full of youthful energy and ambition and like trying to cram every possible idea into   eight measures as I can. I think I’ve chilled out a bit since then. But you’ve got to have that time when you do that.”

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Why is “I Cover the Waterfront” your favorite on the new album?

“There’s a version of this song by Django Reinhardt in his late career where he’s playing an archtop guitar, electric guitar. So it has a lot more sustain and it’s just, it’s such a gorgeous version and I wanted to capture what he captured in a way.

“There were a lot of songs that didn’t make the cut on this album. Either they were too extroverted or … the lyrics didn’t really pass the test. This one just is so simple, the ones like this and “I Fall in Love Too Easily.”

“As much as I love to explore and improvise with jazz, I can’t quite escape my pop sensibility of wanting to make a concise statement. I was fighting that with this album because I thought there’s going to be a lot of solos. And I ended up singing a lot more in this album and treating them just like my own songs. I just can’t escape that love for like a great song, a great lyric and a really succinct melody.”

You starred in season four of “Fargo.” Do you have more acting on the way?

“I’ve been doing auditions but nothing has come together except I’ve only been offered like a few horror movies, which is not really my scene. So I’m just waiting for something else to come along. I really enjoyed it. I’m still mystified by acting. I don’t quite understand it, but I think I can do it.”

Why are you interested in acting? 

“I think I was very typecast for that role of, like, the guy who’s in over his head. There’s always a character in the ‘Fargo’ shows who’s got a good moral center, but he’s surrounded by wolves and he’s just trying to keep it together. Since I was a bit in over my head trying this for the first time I think it made sense, but I’m yet to do something where I’m behaving out of character. But I think I could do it and I’d like to do more of it.”

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Chris Bentley produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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