Everything In Its Right Place: The Exchange Between Radiohead And Jazz

Radiohead’s incredibly unique, lush sound owes a lot more to jazz than most of their fans realize.

Few people would refute the statement that Radiohead is one of the most important and influential rock bands that have arisen in the last twenty years. However, Radiohead’s incredibly unique, lush sound owes a lot more to jazz than most of their fans realize. In fact, Radiohead appears to be in a constant dialogue with the jazz community. If Miles Davis is one of the band’s prime influences, they in turn receive acknowledgement from some of the most respected jazz musicians in today’s scene with a surprising number of covers. It is probably safe to say that recently Radiohead has become the rock band that garners the most attention from the jazz community.

Specifically, members of Radiohead have admitted that the band has been heavily influenced by the style, compositions, and nonconformist philosophy of legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. The most extensive manifestation of this reverence is the fact that the biggest influence on Radiohead’s pivotal 1997 album ‘OK Computer’ was Davis’s 1969 landmark double album ‘Bitches Brew’. Other jazz musicians that have heavily influenced the band include bassist Charles Mingus, iconic saxophonist John Coltrane and his wife Alice (a pianist in her own right), and the avant-garde group the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Readers might also find interesting that ‘Pyramid Song’ off of 2001’s ‘Amnesiac’ was based directly on the Mingus song ‘Freedom’, an important foundational example of jazz poetry from the classic 1963 album ‘Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus’.

Yet what makes Radiohead’s admiration for jazz especially profound is that the modern jazz community recognizes the acknowledgement and replies with an array of arrangements of Radiohead songs. This conversation not only confirms the distinguishable influence of jazz on Radiohead’s music, but that the band is using this influence skillfully enough for it to be turned back into the genre it was derived from.

Perhaps the most profound example comes from Robert Glasper, a highly respected pianist and an eager pioneer of fusing jazz with other genres, since his collaborators have included Mos Def and Bilal. Glasper wrote a bass-drums-piano arrangement that set ‘Everything In Its Right Place’ under the melody of Herbie Hancock’s jazz standard ‘Maiden Voyage’, creating a vivid instance of direct and intimate discussion and flawless integration between jazz and rock.

Robert Glasper - Maiden Voyage / Everything In Its Right Place:


The stream of jazz musicians who have covered Radiohead is long. The Bad Plus, a trio known for their eccentric re-workings of rock songs which have included Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’ and Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, recorded a version of ‘Karma Police’ for a Radiohead tribute album entitled ‘Exit Music’. Modern saxophone icon Chris Potter recorded a version of ‘Morning Bell’ that can be found on his MySpace. New Orleans trumpeter Christian Scott created his own version of Thom Yorke’s ‘The Eraser’.  Brad Melhdau, a prolific jazz pianist, has played and recorded numerous covers of Radiohead songs, among them a solo piano version of ‘Paranoid Android’, and a particularly moving version of ‘Exit Music (For a Film)’.

The Bad Plus - Karma Police:


Christian Scott - The Eraser:


Brad Mehldau - Paranoid Android:


Brad Mehldau - Exit Music (For A Film):


Radiohead’s connection to jazz is a link that sneaks up on the avid fan through slow realization, yet once it hits it promises the discovery of a whole new dimension and meaning to their music. Not only will fans be encouraged to listen to the dynamic interpretations of familiar songs in an assumedly unfamiliar idiom, but also they will be tempted to go back into jazz history and listen to the formative jazz albums that shaped the band’s music. So in addition to giving us nearly twenty years of fantastic music, Radiohead appears to be doing us another favor by giving us a shove into the deep, rich world of jazz when we least expect it.