Under the Radar shines a light on lesser-known cover artists. If you’re not listening to these folks, you should. Catch up on past installments here.
When it comes to instrumental covers of popular music, my go-to is the edgier jazz artists–you probably know the ones I mean. They are lovable troublemakers, but sometimes their jarring ways, all the virtuoso-signaling, is not what the mood calls for. More and more I appreciate instrumentalists who play the melody straight, who embrace the original arrangement of the song and work within its comforting confines.
The trick is that a more modest and direct approach can wash the color out of a song–it becomes the music you hear when the bank puts you on hold. A good cover has a proper edge to it: there’s embellishment and surprise in it, a searching quality, a point of view–all the things missing from the music that elevators listen to during their work hours. For me, the Michael Udelson Trio brings all the good aspects to their jazzy treatments, and leaves behind the undesirable bits.
The band has so far released two recordings, both of them cover albums: Irrational Numbers and Minor Infractions (2015 and 2016). (During the COVID lockdown period, the trio got together virtually to share some new material with fans–so maybe there’s more albums coming in the future.) This next part I find mystifying: these two albums and the songs on them have a vanishingly small number of views/plays. (Probably most of those plays are mine.) The trio’s most popular track on Spotify is their take on Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android.” It has 17,000 plays. For every other Udelson track, Spotify displays a blank instead a number in the “Plays” column–which why the phrase “vanishingly small” seems apt. It’s fair to ask how that 17,000 figure compares to any jazz piano version of “Paranoid Android.” Here’s a point of comparison: Brad Mehldau’s cover has nearly 5,000,000 plays.
Few seem to know or care about MUT–not even its own members, as we’ll see shortly. So who are these guys, and where their fans at?
Pianist and arranger Michael Udelson plays at the classiest San Francisco hotel piano bars and lounges–the places where world leaders and Kardashians stay. He performs at weddings and other events throughout the Bay Area, and has been doing so for decades. His thing is to pepper the safe, sedate repertoire the swank hotel gigs demand–the tasteful George Gershwin/Cole Porter/Jerome Kern standards–with rock and pop numbers. Coldplay, Cream, Metallica, Grateful Dead, Billie Eilish. Maybe the album titles Minor Infractions and Irrational Numbers refer to Udelson’s penchant for shaking and stirring things up in this way. No, he’s not smashing amplifiers or spitting on audience members, but context is everything: I’m sure that launching into “Enter Sandman” right after a Gershwin medley during cocktail hour must raise some expensively-laminated eyebrows.
There’s not much more I can tell you about Udelson. I can’t pull facts and quotes from the artist’s or the label’s PR materials, or glean salient points from reviews in Downbeat or Pitchfork or even the San Francisco Chronicle to flesh out this profile. None of that stuff exists, or it exists just barely. (Udelson does have several reviews on Yelp from nice folks who hired him for their weddings. They attest that Udelson delivers the musical goods and is a pleasure to work with.)
In contrast to the low-profile Mr. Udelson, the trio’s drummer David Rokeach has soared to some musical heights. He has played with absolute giants: Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and loads more. So many more, in fact, that nowhere in his long list of collaborations does Rokeach mention his work with Michael Udelson. Cold! His playing on the MUT recordings is superb, so I’m not surprised that Rokeach gets the call from musical royalty.
Bassist Pat Klobas, like Udelson, is a Bay Area fixture. He plays with symphonies and chamber orchestras, recording on various jazz and pop dates, performing on Broadway shows and on major studio film soundtracks. Like Rokeach, he’s teamed-up with luminaries from all regions of the musical map–Pavarotti, Turtle Island String Quartet, and Linda Ronstadt to name a few–a list so extensive that Klobas (again like Rokeach) forgets to mention the Michael Udelson Trio on his website. Ouch! His playing is vivid on the MUT recordings; the undercurrent he forms with Rokeach powers every track on the two MUT releases.
“Piano bar music” and “hotel lounge act” are usually unkind descriptors; they imply that the music is neutered or meant for inebriates. If Udelson’s music IS piano bar fodder, so be it. I like it. I don’t want to sound like one of the yokels Billy Joel sings about in “Piano Man:” …and they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar and say “man, what are you doin’ here?” Billy Joel was too talented to play piano bars. But Michael Udelson is right where he wants to be, or so I like to think. Even so, I’d like to ask him: man, what are you doing with so few play counts?
Michael Udelson Trio – Black (Pearl Jam cover)
Take away Eddie Vedder’s voice, and his passionate lyric, and what does “Black” have to offer? That’s the challenge MUT signs up for. Their version rocks with the same spirit if not the same volume as the original; they play at first with space and restraint and then with abandon, again similar to the Pearl Jam template. But MUT’s is a more orderly abandon, with less noise and more signal. Free of the howling storm that marks the original, “Black” becomes a ruminative mood piece for the trio and the listener to explore.
Michael Udelson Trio – Watching the Detective (Elvis Costello cover)
Tense and angular songs don’t fit the hotel lounge vibe or the typical wedding set, and they are not the usual mode for MUT. Given the band’s fondness for covering the Dead and the Allman Brothers, I’d say they go in the opposite direction, towards flowy and wavy grooves that seems to be the San Francisco style. Hippy jazz, some call it. But San Francisco is also renowned for film noir and hard-boiled detective lit (think Vertigo, and The Maltese Falcon). The reggae chop and noir elements of “Watching the Detective” spices up and diversifies Udelson’s set, yes, but the Costello cover speaks to the darker, seamier side of the city.
Michael Udelson Trio – Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys (Traffic cover)
Traffic’s undersung masterpiece is… confusion. Confusion of the best kind. The original begins inconclusively with a slow fade-in, and it concludes inconclusively by slowly fading out. The lyrics are inscrutable, and even the instrumentation is a puzzle: Is it clear to you what instrument takes the solo after the saxophone fades out? Is it the same sax but now played through an effects pedal? Or is it a keyboard of some kind? Finally, what is that ungodly culminating chord right before the fade out starts? Is it in key? Is it even a proper chord? Whatever it is, it is uncalled for, a deeply strange move in an uncommonly strange song, and I wouldn’t change a second of it.
MUT waters down this strange brew, but it still intoxicates. MUT has only three instruments to work with, remember; Traffic had three instrumentalists just in Steve Winwood alone (four if his voice counts as an instrument). I only wish someone in the trio thought to use a vibraslap, since the original has the slappingest vibraslap moment on record (apart from “All Along the Watchtower”).
Michael Udelson Trio – Whipping Post (Allman Brothers Band cover)
On live dates, ABB liked to stretch this blues to a sprawling length–it takes up an entire album side of their At Fillmore East recording. MUT sticks to the studio version’s script, a tidy six minutes. But it’s a fun six minutes. The trio is light on its feet, almost lighthearted in mood, as if keeping Greg Allman’s youthful self-pity at a safe social distance. Or maybe it’s simply their simple joy in playing this material showing through (ABB being a particular favorite of Udelson’s). I love to hear the original’s throbbing bass-line intro played on a double-bass.
Michael Udelson Trio – Clocks (Coldplay cover)
“Clocks” is one of the few covers on the two MUT albums written in this century. It is also a deviation from the guitar-oriented fare the trio loves. Since the Coldplay original is a keyboard-driven piece played on a grand piano, the song poses little challenge to Udelson. Or maybe those qualities make it a challenging selection. I mean, Udelson can often sound fresh simply because his grand piano is playing something you’ve only heard before on electric organs or distorted guitar. How will he change “Clocks” if it inherently sounds like Udelson? “Not much” is the honest answer, but just enough.
Michael Udelson Trio – Riders on the Storm (Doors cover)
If you consider Jim Morrison’s voice to be too monotonous and his lyrics too hackneyed, an instrumental cover like this may be your on-ramp to appreciation of an actual classic. Such a unique groove and mood The Doors conjure up on “Riders on the Storm.” What an unholy mixture of modal jazz, psychedelic blues, and cow-poke country. The song descends from “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” but it occupies its own private twilight zone.
I love the bass solo on this one (recall that The Doors never had a permanent bass player, only hired guns). And notice that Udelman doesn’t play games with the song’s long down-pouring keyboard riff, one of the more iconic runs in popular music. He plays it note-for-note each time it occurs. Possibly he’s run some comparison tests at the piano bar, and found that reactions are better when he plays it straight.
You can learn more about Michael Udelson, including his trio work, on his website.