Travis Sullivan knows that when most folks hear about Bjorkestra, the 18-piece jazz orchestra he founded as a means of interpreting the work of his favorite Icelandic art-pop diva, they envision a novelty act. "I'm sure people think we go onstage in swan dresses and just sort of dance around," Sullivan says on the phone from his home in Astoria, Queens. "But then they check it out, and it's not what they expected."
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Vocalist Becca Stevens attempts the impossible: interpreting Bjork in front of Bjorkestra.
The thrill of the unexpected is what drew Sullivan, an alto saxophonist, to Bjork's music in the first place. "I heard 'Joga' [from 1997's Homogenic] and thought it was one of the most visionary things I'd ever heard," he gushes. "I just fell in love with it." At the time, Sullivan was playing in a big band backing up a Scandinavian jazz vocalist, which gave him the idea of trying to arrange Bjork's "Hyperballad" for such an ensemble. He finished eight measures, then put it in a drawer, distracted by other work.
Four years later, a nagging sense of possibility called him back to the project, whereupon he quickly finished "Hyperballad" and then "Alarm Call." "That's when I thought, 'Okay, I can have a whole body of work with Bjork's music as the focus.' That got me from Point A to Point B." With his sheaf of arrangements growing — "Human Behavior" was next — Sullivan began assembling a group out of his friends and acquaintances on the New York jazz scene; Bjorkestra played its first show in September 2004 at Manhattan's Knitting Factory.
Singer Becca Stevens, a former music-theory student of one of Bjorkestra's sax players, joined a year later when the band's original front woman left to focus on her own material. Stevens' Bjork fandom goes back to her high-school days in North Carolina. "I'm always drawn to vocalists who have really different-sounding voices," she says, "especially when it sounds like they're singing the way they're supposed be singing." Stevens' other faves: Joni Mitchell and Joanna Newsom.
After two years of steady gigging around New York — as well as a brief California tour that brought them to Hollywood's Knitting Factory and the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach in 2006 — Sullivan decided he wanted to have a go at capturing the band's live energy on tape. The group set up for two days with producer Jason Miles at New Jersey's Bennett Studios; Tony Bennett's son Dae owns the place. According to Sullivan, "roughly 90 percent" of the album was recorded in complete takes without edits; Stevens did her vocals live with very few overdubs.
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Miles shopped the completed recording around to various label execs, including Chuck Mitchell at Koch, who'd recently signed on to head up the indie's new jazz division. "It was hard to conjure what they were doing in my imagination," says Mitchell. "But when I heard the record, I thought, 'Wow, they did it.'" The album, Enjoy!, came out in January; in addition to Sullivan's three initial arrangements, it features renditions of "Army of Me," the overture to Dancer in the Dark, and five other Bjork tunes.
Mitchell acknowledges that when "ensembles try to jazz up popular material, it's usually a bust." Bjorkestra's stuff, though, is "legitimate as jazz," he says. "It's solid all the way." (At least one of the genre's gatekeepers agrees with Mitchell: Bjorkestra just held its CD-release show at New York's respected Jazz Standard. "That was a major coup for us," Sullivan admits.)
For his part, the bandleader hopes Enjoy! allows him to connect with that most elusive of jazz audiences: kids. "I remember reading this article in All About Jazz where the writer was talking about how jazz is in a crisis and needs to get younger people involved," he says. "I was like, 'Listen to this!'"
Bjorkestra performs at Safari Sam's on Sun., March 9.