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Andrew Bird

Andrew Bird’s new release Sunday Morning Put-On is chock-full of jazz standards. He credits legacies of the genre — and some WBEZ programming — as inspiration for the album.

Courtesy of Alexa Viscius

Indie extraordinaire Andrew Bird finds new melodic direction in jazz standards

The violin-slinging singer-songwriter walks WBEZ through the creation of four standouts on Sunday Morning Put-On, his new album of jazz standards.

Look for the gray audio player embedded throughout this story and press play to hear samples from Sunday Morning Put-On.

Wes Anderson has nothing on Andrew Bird’s life in Chicago in the mid-1990s. Before becoming an indie rock darling, Bird spent his 20s living in The Sovereign, a 1920s-era apartment-hotel in Edgewater where Russian mobsters hogged the steamroom and the “gym” was a collection of Schwinn bikes stacked on cinder blocks.

On free mornings, Bird would ride his own, uncinder-blocked bike to Uptown’s The Green Mill, already staggering with day-drinkers. Bird, a Lake Forest native eking out a living as a musician, just wanted to listen to the Mill’s collection of classic jazz 45s in relative peace. The trouble was figuring out what to order at an operational nightclub at 10 a.m.

“One time, I ordered a Manhattan, and that just didn’t work, man,” Bird said. From then on, he opted for coffee.

The experience wasn’t glamorous, but it was formative for Bird, who is now 50. He was especially inspired by the tenor saxophone greats bridging the transition from swing to bebop — Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, Ben Webster. At Green Mill, he got to witness one of them in action: the late Von Freeman, who is still honored with a life-size cutout lurking just offstage.

Bird credits those morning Green Mill jaunts and two WBEZ programs — Steve Cushing’s “Blues Before Sunrise,” and “Jazz with Dick Buckley,” both airing on Sundays — as foundational to his musical education. As vast as the singer-songwriter and violinist’s discography is, though, he’s never put out an album that can rightly be called “jazz.”

That changes this Friday with the release of Sunday Morning Put-On (Loma Vista Recordings). The album is an about-face for Bird, consisting entirely, with one exception, of jazz standards. He’s joined by regular collaborators — drummer Ted Poor and bassist Alan Hampton — and not-so-regular ones: guitarist Jeff Parker and pianist Larry Goldings. All have deep jazz bona fides, giving the album the feel of a small-combo session. Even the release show is intimate: Bird and his trio come home, literally and spiritually, to the Green Mill on May 29. (The ticket lottery, alas, closed last month.)

“Every time I tried to sing more from the gut, and belted out, it sounded like a violation of this space that we’re trying to create,” Bird said.

Bird walked WBEZ through selections from the album on a Zoom call from his home in Los Angeles.

Andrew Bird

Andrew Bird, pictured playing violin at Arroyo Seco Music Festival in 2017, used to frequent The Green Mill in Uptown Chicago to listen to the club’s jazz 45s.

Joseph Longo/Joseph Longo/Invision/AP

“Caravan”

Bird's history with this tune runs deep. He played it every week with a band led by his longtime drummer, Kevin O’Donnell, during the band’s Monday night gigs at the North Side club the Elbo Room.

“We really bonded with that song. It’s one of those tunes that feels different every time — it adapts to how you feel at the moment,” Bird said.

The 1936 standard is most associated with Duke Ellington, but Ellington split composition credits with Juan Tizol, the trombonist of his big band who first thought up its melody. Irving Mills, at the time Ellington’s manager, wrote lyrics for the tune later.

Bird considers “Caravan” an extroverted detour from the album’s “relaxed, chill ballads.”

“When it gets to the bridge, [the lyrics go]: ‘This is so exciting.’ It’s a moment in the middle of the set where you drop the fourth wall — like, “Look, this is so exciting, people,’ he said. ‘It rocks. And it doesn’t feel too far off from my own material.’

“I Cover the Waterfront”

This classic — composed by Johnny Green, with lyrics by Edward Heyman — has been immortalized by singers like Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Sarah Vaughan. Sunday Morning Put-On’s version prominently features the fleet fingers of guitarist Jeff Parker, who, like Bird, was a fixture of the Chicago improvised music scene before decamping to LA.

Bird first met Parker in Washington, D.C., in 2009, headlining an inauguration concert for Barack Obama sponsored by Chicago’s beloved music-filled dive bar The Hideout. The pair has shared bandstands off and on since, including at Bird’s end-of-year Gezelligheid concerts at Fourth Presbyterian Church and on the violinist’s 2020 holiday album, Hark!

“His knowledge of jazz is so deep, and his soloing is so unpredictable and interesting. You never know what’s going to happen when you play with him,” Bird said.

“I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”

According to Bird, this Lerner/Loewe standard from the musical My Fair Lady was a late addition to Sunday Morning Put-On. He was inspired to put his spin on it when he heard Dorothy Dandridge’s cracklingly seductive take on the tune, which the actress and singer recorded with pianist Oscar Peterson’s trio in 1958.

“It’s very theatrical, very vampy … I loved how intimate the vocal sound was,” Bird said.

Bird’s “I’ve Grown Accustomed…” borrows the Dandridge–Peterson version’s twinkling celeste and in-your-face vocal mix. It’s short, but the aftertaste of its bittersweet lyrics linger awhile. Bird’s favorite couplet: I was supremely independent and content before we met / Surely, I could always be that way again, and yet.

“Ballon de peut-être”

French for “The Balloon of Perhaps,” this track is the album’s “... And now, for something completely different!” moment. Not only is it Sunday Morning Put-On’s only original, but it also flirts with free jazz — a subgenre in which even the structure of tunes is improvised. That’s no big thing for Hampton, Poor and Parker, all of whom are “more jazz insiders than I am,” per Bird. The result is nine minutes of inspired wandering, nearly twice the length of the other tracks from the album.

“There’s no script, except that the main melody’s taken from a new song I’m working on. [Bassist Alan Hampton] is creating a chord progression off the top of his head, and I’m responding to it a split second after I hear where he might be going,” Bird said. “Improvisation is either a way to go off into uncharted territories or a vehicle to find new melodies. I think that’s why I respond more to the swing-era stuff, from Louis Armstrong to Lester Young: I feel like they’re improvising with the intent of finding new melodies.”

If you go: Andrew Bird performs two shows at The Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway Ave., on May 29, and a show at the Old Town School of Folk Music on May 31. The shows are sold out.

Hannah Edgar is a Chicago-based culture writer. Their work appears regularly in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, Musical America and Downbeat.

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