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Relevance of Repertoire

Taylor Roberts

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Jazz Guitar Today contributor Taylor Roberts provides some inspiration for developing your repertoire with today’s pop music. (Video).

“There’s no good pop music anymore!” We hear Jazz purists around the world bemoan this tired old phrase constantly. When it comes to what dominates the airwaves these days, this is true in many cases. But overall, I couldn’t disagree more. When we observe popular music from the past 30 years, there is a goldmine of options to choose from. While most of us are firmly steeped in the Jazz tradition, we often overlook how the genre has evolved. Artists such as Brian McKnight, Justin Timberlake, OutKast, and yes, even Britney Spears have a multitude of material that can speak to the sensibilities of even the most hard-headed Jazz snobs. In the video, I provide a short breakdown of Beyonce’s “Love on Top.”

Many of us like to include the occasional Beatles or Stevie Wonder song in our repertoire but tend to ignore anything written after 1980. What we often don’t take into consideration is how diverse our audiences can be. Believe it or not, it is possible to take any song (really, ANY song) and suit it to our tastes without sacrificing our musical integrity. What I’ve found in my own personal experience is this: the more current songs I include in my performances, the wider an audience it appeals to. Just as Jazz was America’s popular music in the 30s and 40s, we have limitless choices of repertoire at our disposal today.

My challenge to Jazz musicians everywhere would be to seek out songs that have made the Billboard charts over recent years, and analyze them with an open mind. What I’ve found, more often than not, is that even the most harmonically simplistic songs have tons of untapped potential. Tunes such as “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish can be used as a vehicle for improvisation just as easily as John Coltrane’s “Mr. P.C.” 

However disguised some of these songs can be by the glitz and glamour associated with today’s pop stars, they can serve the musician and audiences equally in ways that the Great American Songbook frankly can’t. Miles Davis played a Cyndi Lauper song, for crying out loud! Known for constantly pushing the boundaries of music, he had a constant eye on how popular music was evolving, and tailored it to his style in such a way that his appeal was undeniable.

Here are a few examples of songs that I play regularly, which continue to appeal to audiences of all ages while keeping my love for Jazz intact:
Maroon 5 – Sunday Morning
Panic at the Disco – Death of a Bachelor
Brian McKnight – Back at One
Justin Timberlake – Pusher Love Girl
Daniel Caesar – Best Part
D’angelo – Really Love
Ariana Grande – Jason’s Song

The list goes on and on. My point is not to encourage abandoning the classics we all know and love, but to hopefully widen our appeal (and in turn, increase our employability) as Jazz guitarists. I hope this will inspire you all and give us a reason to not lose hope in the evolution of popular music. Best of luck to you all!

Cheers, Taylor Roberts

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