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What is viral jazz?

Louis Cole leads collaborators through a deadpan dance medley in the video for "I'm Tight."
YouTube
Louis Cole leads collaborators through a deadpan dance medley in the video for "I'm Tight."

Here is a litmus test for anyone looking to gauge their exposure to viral jazz. What's your favorite dance move from the "I'm Tight" video by Louis Cole? Perhaps you're partial to the simplicity of the "RIDLEY SCOTTZ," or its more kinetic variation, the "STEPPIN' RIDLEYZ." Or maybe you're more of a conceptual "HEIMLICHZ" type. Now, if your answer to the prompt is "What the hell are you talking about?" — then congratulations, you don't appear to have been seriously exposed. But that doesn't mean you're immune.

Cole is a stupefyingly proficient multi-instrumentalist, singer, producer and trickster whose bracing new album, Quality over Opinion, releases this Friday on Brainfeeder. He's been a major player in the musical online attention economy for the better part of a decade, as a solo act and as one-half of Knower, with singer-songwriter and producer Genevieve Artadi. Together with virtuoso oddballs like MonoNeon, an electric bass whiz and vocal funkateer, and DOMi & JD Beck, a sly keys-and-drums duo repping mayhem in the rhythm matrix, Cole stands at the center of a cohort whose identifying traits are easy to recognize and harder to define. Many of these musicians have at least a tangential connection to Thundercat, the bassist and falsetto warbler whose interstellar jazz-R&B has been a defining Brainfeeder trademark. Like him, they're known for jaw-dropping technical ability, jazz-inflected genre fluidity and an irreverent yet allusive savvy regarding image and platform. At this disorienting moment in our age of digital exchange, they can sometimes seem like the only ones who've gleefully cracked the code.

A few months ago, pianist and composer Vijay Iyer coined a good handle for this new musical phenotype. Taking to Twitter, he wrote: "latest subgenre: 'viral jazz'," adding a parenthetical: "(I don't think the term exists, but the music definitely does)." Iyer, who comes into regular contact with developing musicians at the conservatory level, took care not to name names or issue value judgments, then or since. But there's a set of natural assumptions to be made here, including the idea that even as viral jazz plays by its own rules, the style (if one can call it a style) has been bleeding over into mainstream jazz discourse (if one can call it jazz). DOMi & JD Beck — who recently released their debut album, NOT TiGHT, through an alliance between Anderson .Paak's unprintably named label, APES*** INC., and the venerable Blue Note Records — were ubiquitous on the jazz festival circuit this summer, while managing to squeeze in a Tiny Desk concert. For the next few weeks, they'll be flooring young crowds across the country on an 18-city tour.

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By my own reckoning, "viral jazz" describes an aesthetic rather than a set of quantifiable viewer metrics. To that end, I wouldn't apply the term to, say, the insufferable outflow of Scott Bradlee's Postmodern Jukebox, which has racked up more than 1.8 billion YouTube views on a channel with some 5.8 million subscribers. The Postmodern Jukebox formula, in the event that you've been fortunate enough to avoid it, features blockbuster pop hits dipped in a fondue pot of smarmy anachronism. (A typical upload from last year transplants Dua Lipa's "Levitating" to the loamy soil of 1920s hot jazz — good for 3.7 million views and counting.) Bradlee, a run-of-the-mill lounge pianist, brings little more than glib pastiche and showy juxtaposition to his franchise; he's cranking out indisputably viral jazz videos, but he isn't making viral jazz.

Neither for that matter is someone like the breakout vocal star Samara Joy, despite her heavy traction on TikTok. Joy has proven adept at delivering snackable digital content, but the core of her musical appeal — as I've recently experienced it in club and festival settings, and on her fine new album, Linger Awhile — rings familiar, even conservative, in its basic contour. Like the amiably effervescent guitarist Julian Lage, whose YouTube videos routinely amass not only beaucoup page views but also a bloom of awestruck commentary, Joy is an irrepressible talent harnessing modern means toward traditional ends.

Much truer to the spirit of viral jazz is the musician who fully inhabits a given platform, allowing it to inform their creative process — for a point of comparison, someone like the jazz-conversant polymath Jacob Collier, a harmony and rhythm savant par excellence. Though he is now a concert attraction with a diminishing tether to jazz, Collier's early success came entirely on YouTube, through a series of videos in which he demonstrates, explains or otherwise exemplifies musical arrangements of Byzantine complexity but pop-friendly affect. A case in point is his 2014 derangement of the Gershwin standard "Fascinating Rhythm," which begins in a six-part vocal blend (via a multitrack grid of Colliers, all singing to the camera, according to the informal house style of viral a cappella vids) and morphs into a one-man band. At last check, this show of jazz geekery had racked up more than 2.8 million views.

Collier is a genial and effective collaborator, as he demonstrated on his 2020 album Djesse Vol. 3, featuring the likes of Ty Dolla $ign, Tori Kelly and T-Pain. But even as he develops a solicitous new trademark as a conductor of arena singalongs, he has the cloistered instinct of a native YouTuber. In fact, it wouldn't be a stretch to argue that YouTube is his genre. And in this he's hardly alone. In "jazz" as elsewhere, we've seen a recent explosion in acts that inhabit the platform as a hothouse terrarium, cultivating fan bases that migrate them to major stages: Think of the French house producer French Kiwi Juice, or the Los Angeles funk laboratory Scary Pockets. These aren't really album artists, though they do put out albums. Partly because of their commitment to visual impact, and partly through a brand of showmanship that feels immersively technical yet breezy and personable, their work makes the most intuitive sense in a YouTube window. You could see that as a limitation or a clever hack, though it's probably a bit of both.

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Natural limitations don't seem to apply to MonoNeon, aka Dywane Thomas Jr., whose typical attire suggests a castaway from the children's TV show Yo Gabba Gabba!, and who became a cult figure on the basis of his YouTube videos adapting found footage (often choice snippets of spoken word) into solo bass etudes. Many of these mashups conclude with something called the "MonoNeon art manifesto," which combines clear statements of purpose with more idiosyncratic aims: "Embrace bizarre juxtapositions (sound, imagery, etc.)," reads one. "Polychromatic color schemes. High-visibility clothing," suggests another. And also, simply: "Childlike." While MonoNeon has worked IRL with Prince, Georgia Anne Muldrow and others — and can be seen on tour with Ghost-Note, featuring the funkier members of Snarky Puppy's rhythm section — he's still at home in the viral video realm. YouTube's hypermetabolic rhythm is intrinsic to his artistic model, as you can sense by browsing his Bandcamp page, which brims with gems like last year's Basquiat & Skittles Album (named after Eddie Murphy's off-the-cuff summation of the MonoNeon vibe).

Several years ago, MonoNeon posted footage of an impromptu funk jam with DOMi & JD Beck, who had just started playing together. (DOMi, aka Domitille Degalle, was 18 at the time; Beck was 15.) The video, barely a minute and a half long, has a cheerfully vulgar title based on the only lyric MonoNeon sings during the jam — a juvenile punchline, basically. It's in line with the casually outrageous tone of Adult Swim, which has incubated so much of the new viral jazz.

Jazz is a musical form practically overrun with pieties; it's a big factor behind the genre's intimidating reputation to outsiders. This is why so much has been made of the disarming impiety embodied by DOMi & JD Beck, who dress like hyperpop fiends and otherwise embody a specific brand of Gen Z insouciance. Profiling the duo for The New York Times Magazine last year, writer Ryan Bradley asserted: "Their music is both radically sophisticated and full of jokes, a combination of qualities you find in both the 20th century's jazz greats and the 21st century's extremely online teenagers."

But here's what might be a best-kept secret: DOMi & JD Beck actually seem quite fond of the jazz tradition. At the North Sea Jazz festival this summer, I saw them grapple in earnest with "Havona," a Weather Report tune by bassist Jaco Pastorius, followed by Wayne Shorter's "Endangered Species." Their bantering preamble revolved around how difficult both tunes were to play — a humble confession, offered without a trace of ironic detachment. Squint and it's possible to recognize them as a familiar type of voracious young jazz talent, only with muscular '70s fusion swapped in for aerodynamic post-bop. Their recent set lists have included fearsome variations on "Giant Steps," John Coltrane's harmonic slalom course, and "My Favorite Things," the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune that Coltrane refashioned into a standard. Both references date from more than 60 years ago, and they're handled not dutifully but with a funhouse brio.

In similar fashion, DOMi & JD Beck's remarkably assured album, NOT TiGHT, is full of surreptitious jazz flourishes. Its guest list includes not only Anderson .Paak and Snoop Dogg but also Kurt Rosenwinkel, the Gen X guitar hero who has captivated a few generations of up-and-coming jazz musicians. (Rosenwinkel also makes a winning cameo on Louis Cole's latest.) And just as the video for "SMiLE" casts Mac DeMarco as a cranky jazz elder — not just tolerated but tenderly coddled by DOMi & JD Beck's rainbow coalition of party guests — NOT TiGHT creates a reverential place for Herbie Hancock, the 82-year-old keyboardist and NEA Jazz Master.

"Moon" finds Hancock in indomitable form, reeling off a brisk piano solo as well as some vocoder-processed singing that recalls the A side of his 1978 sleeper-classic jazz-funk album, Sunlight. It's the freshest new track he has graced since "Tesla," from a 2014 album by producer and Brainfeeder founder Flying Lotus — an early prototype for viral jazz, if you will.

None of this is cause for handwringing, contrary to some of the framing you may have seen. (Like the headline from that Times Magazine piece: "Who are these kids, and what are they doing to jazz?") Viral jazz means no harm to the host organism; it will just keep mutating according to its own capricious logic. Students at conservatories like Berklee are presently poring over YouTube clips of DOMi & JD Beck, Louis Cole and others with Talmudic intensity, so it seems likely we'll be seeing more along these lines. But as we've witnessed countless times over the last century, the tradition of improvised music is resilient and adaptive. Viral jazz isn't the only sort of jazz built for change.

Copyright 2022 WRTI . To see more, visit WRTI.

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