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Bewitched, Bothered, And Bon Iver-ed

As if NPR Music didn't already have a collective crush on Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, he recently sang a benefit performance with his high school jazz band. Annah Legg hide caption

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Annah Legg

As if NPR Music didn't already have a collective crush on Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, he recently sang a benefit performance with his high school jazz band.

Annah Legg

I know I need a late pass for this one, but the rest of the Jazz Internet (apart from Darcy James Argue) seems to have missed this little nugget.

Long before Justin Vernon started crafting melancholy masterpieces with Bon Iver, he was the guitarist in the Eau Claire Memorial High School Jazz Ensemble I. In 1999, he and the band had the opportunity to visit New York for the Essentially Ellington competition. Ten years later, as a rock star, he returned to his old school:

On April 19, Vernon teamed up with Eau Claire, Wisconsin's Memorial High's Jazz Ensemble I for a set of jazz standards and Bon Iver tunes. Proceeds from the show went towards a band trip to New York for the "Essentially Ellington" competition at Lincoln Center (where they ranked third).

Now there's an official release of the live show, dubbed A Decade With Duke, the Eau Claire, Wisconsin publication Volume One reports. The disc is available to purchase in physical form only in Eau Claire ... Those not in the area can currently purchase it at their digital retailer of choice, too.

Bon Iver's Justin Vernon: somehow, not the only musical pride of Eau Claire, Wis. courtesy of the artist hide caption

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courtesy of the artist

The jazz band backed up Vernon on two Bon Iver songs, for which he wrote new arrangements for the students. In addition, Vernon also fronted the band for a few songbook standards, including "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," "The Lady Is A Tramp" and "Since I Fell For You." He closed with a solo rendition of "A Satisfied Mind." (Some photos.)

I scrounged up $8 to download A Decade With Duke from Amazon, and after a few passes, I think it quite charming. It's fascinating to hear Vernon's trademark falsetto on a brassy, no-nonsense blues like "Rocks In My Bed"; it's equally intriguing to hear him break character and bust out a rather meaty (dare I say Sinatra-esque?) chest voice on "Lady Is A Tramp." But the real surprises are the rescorings of Vernon originals "For Emma" and "Lump Sum." The latter, in particular, reminds me of what Darcy James Argue's Secret Society or John Hollenbeck's Large Ensemble might sound like with a male singer: chugging, repetitive, post-Minimalist, post-post-rock, with rich orchestral flourishes and myriad textures. (With polished high school level execution, of course, but the elements are in place.) Hear for yourself: here's an audience tape of "Lump Sum":

Having been to Eau Claire/the Chippewa Valley of Western Wisconsin several times for actual jazz-related purposes (Shorewood Intermediate School Jazz Ensemble represent), I do know that the area fosters surprisingly strong jazz talent.

You'll note that the pianists Geoff Keezer and Ethan Iverson both grew up in the area. But when Bon Iver/Justin Vernon emerged from the Wisconsin northwoods with one of the most heartfelt and critically-hailed albums of 2008 — that would be For Emma, Forever Ago — he took us all by surprise. It all makes sense now: he's just another failed jazz guitarist!

This is further proof that 1) Justin Vernon is actually the secret love child between me and fellow ex-Wisconsinite, NPR Music editor/Bon Iver fanboy Stephen Thompson, and 2) of a pet theory of mine: that the precepts of jazz education are secret ingredients in making possible many of today's more musically rich rock and pop acts. It's certainly the case here, according to the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram (link is dead):

"Justin has stated that his time spent with the Memorial High School Jazz Ensemble taught him how to be in a band — how to play with a group of talented musicians and make it work," said his manager, Kyle Frenette.

Any other great non-jazz out there which owe some hidden debts to jazz?

While you're pondering that, here's rehearsal tape of Vernon and MHS Jazz Ensemble I: