The Crooning Beginnings of Jazz Pianist Tom Waits
Tom Waits’ cult appeal owes much to his unusual instruments (ranging from accordions and bassoons to scrap metal and giant rattling seedpods). He is also celebrated for composing in a quirky mix of rock, blues, folk, Caribbean rhythms, European cabaret and other genres. His experimentalism is now so synonymous with his name that many listeners – fans included – would never even suspect that Tom Waits was once known for sentimental piano ballads.
The Waitsian style we’re used to first graced the artist’s output with Swordfishtrombones (1983) – his eighth studio album. It was such a departure from his seven previous efforts that it prompted Asylum, his seventies label, to turn it down with a warning: “not only will you lose the audience that you have, you won’t gain a new one,” reports Mojo (#162, 2007). Could the difference be that shocking?
Yes, it could.
The Piano Has Been Drinking
A glance through his seventies career highlights reveals what fans expected from Tom Waits: slow ballads about broken-hearted working-class alcoholics. Since his debut, the staples of his repertoire were variations on romantic longing and rejection, like “Martha,” “Rosie” and “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night.”
That melancholic piano was never far away. His raspy voice was the only noise in his songs – melodies were clean, even elegant. Crooner Jazz was a clear reference: “Eggs and Sausage” and “On a Foggy Night” echo the charming simplicity of “Fever,” “Why Don’t You Do Right?” and other fifties standards.
As Waits’ vocal delivery became increasingly exaggerated in its mock-drunkenness, his melancholia gained a humorous, ironic quality. By his third record, he was not afraid to work a few bars of Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” into his introductory banter to “Better off Without a Wife.” At first glance, Nighthawks at the Diner resembles a stand-up act, so interspersed it is with witty babble.
The piano ballad format was already showing signs of exhaustion: Waits could no longer take it seriously. He plunged into a lampooning stance, rather than becoming a parody of himself.
First Attempts at Reinvention
That growing irreverence was his first consistent effort to move away from the ballad format. It soon led him to a seedy sort of Beatnik jazz, yielding spoken-word cuts like “Small Change” and “The One That Got Away.” The On the Road-inspired “Jack and Neal” made that influence explicit. But sax and drugs were not enough to appease Waits’ yearnings: he needed to break with jazz entirely.
A noticeable departure came with 1978’s Blue Valentine, which greatly emphasized strings (as in the languid title track). Bluesy guitars made the shuffles “Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard” and “$29.00” sound like Howlin’ Wolf or Sonny Boy Williamson fan favorites. The album’s oddest cut, the cinematic “Red Shoes by the Drugstore,” would prove extremely foreshadowing of his new directions, becoming a standard at Waits’ concerts for another decade.
Heartattack and Vine, his 1980 follow-up, featured atmospheric string arrangements in songs like “On the Nickel.” They signaled the consummate maturity of the new Tom Waits: the ballad had been reinvented, freed from its jazzy constraints. “Jersey Girl,” later a hit for Bruce Springsteen, became a lingering example of Waits’ post-jazz sentimentality. Parallelly, the title track and other uptempo, guitar-driven numbers amplified hints of much noise to come.
Challenging Music for Listeners and Performers
There is no clear separation between the bohemian who slurred “The Piano Has Been Drinking” and the mad professor who smashed a chest of drawers for percussion in “Singapore.” “Tom Traubert’s Blues,” from 1976, could easily fit Frank’s Wild Years, while odd instruments can be attested since his first album, with something called a “celeste” providing the introduction and coda for “Ice Cream Man.”
Waits’ development is more organic than that. Suffice it to say that the press release for 2004’s Real Gone trumpeted it as his first piano-free record. It took him thirty years to get there.
Nevertheless, Waits’ piano-driven tracks had unique qualities largely unheard in his later records. “New Coat of Paint,” “Eggs and Sausage” and “Wrong Side of the Road” might be the most accessible jazz you’ll hear between the heyday of the crooners in the fifties and the new wave of piano divas like Diana Krall and Norah Jones. It’s easy to forget there’s more to jazz than manic improvisations a la Coltrane.
Asylum would have plenty of reasons to regret dropping Waits: Swordfishtrombones quickly became a critical hit, paving the way for the massive acclaim that would follow Rain Dogs and Frank’s Wild Years, culminating with a Grammy for 1992’s frantic Bone Machine.
Still, the minimal attention generally paid to Waits’ quieter period gives one pause to wonder. Perhaps Asylum’s prophecy came half-true: while Swordfishtrombones effectively repositioned Tom Waits as an avant-garde genius, it may have sentenced his jazz age to remote obscurity.