Theremin and jazz?

Posted: 1/12/2012 4:56:15 PM

From: Hillsborough, NC (USA)

Joined: 2/13/2005

I'm a little surprised after all these years that we haven't seen more jazz standards performed on the theremin.  A lot of jazz features monophonic instruments (e.g. vocals, trumpet, trombone, etc.), and many of those pieces would be well suited for theremin.  We have heard Summertime, jazzy versions of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and Caravan, so there's proof it's not impossible.

Some other suitable songs that come to mind are Invitation, Naima, and Misty.

What else?  Who is going to take up the jazz theremin challenge?


Posted: 1/12/2012 8:15:17 PM

From: Nashville, TN, USA

Joined: 12/22/2011

Hi, Jason...

It was Pamelia Kurstin's perfomances of Lush Life and Autumn Leaves that got me intersted in theremin....Here is the link:

My goal is to play a wide variety of styles, including improvisation in several of these styles, but that's off in the future a ways.  Right now I'm grinding hard trying to improve my technical fundamentals...jcn

Posted: 1/12/2012 9:45:44 PM

From: Kingston, NY

Joined: 2/13/2005

>> 'm a little surprised after all these years that we haven't seen more jazz standards performed on the theremin

Part of it may be copyrights, most of the standars sre with full reserved rights for recorded release.  I hear more jass theremin live, material is usually covered by the venue's ASCAP.  Jon B. does some. and, 

Have you listened to Kip Rosser's stuff? That is his speciality and he's damn good at it!

check out The Man I Love:,100000);%20?%3E

Kip does most of the standards in performance including jazz versions of Disney songs which are wild.  The best is hearing him improv. live with his pianist. 

Posted: 1/13/2012 11:36:48 AM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

You can't play jazz on a theremin. There are a number of musical idioms that the theremin just doesn't fit into: Rock & Roll, Country and Jazz are perhaps three of the most obvious. I've seen people play the didgeridoo and the kazoo with a jazz combo and it works for a couple of minutes as a novelty effect but, like the theremin, they are unlikely to be a big hit on Bourbon Street.


In the jazz I have heard that includes a theremin, the thereminist has played in the traditional way while the other instruments supply the jazz feel. Sure, you can do a jazz rendition of OVER THE RAINBOW  - hell, you can do a jazz rendition of O, HOLY NIGHT - but the theremin is a one-trick pony and regardless of whether it is playing with a jazz trio or the Boston Pops, it's going to do pretty much the same thing because it really can't do anything else. 


Then there's the question of "What is jazz?" There are so many kinds of music these days calling themselves "jazz" of one sort or another, that the term has become impossible to define. There are even types of "free jazz" and "experimental jazz" that don't use any of the elements usually associated with jazz, including rhythm! These days, "It's jazz if you say it's jazz". 


I think a lot of experimentalists have decided to call what they are doing "jazz" in order to lend a cool credibility and wider acceptability to their music.


It is popular in the theremin community to believe that the theremin can play any kind of music and that it is limited only by the imagination of the thereminist. That is a generous and all-inclusive philosophy, and I can see why so many people subscribe to it. Unfortunately, it's wrong. The theremin is limited by its own innate inability to do certain things, and trying to make it play jazz is like trying to force Cinderella's delicate glass slipper onto Drusilla's great hoof. 


Drusilla, of course, will insist that it's a perfect fit because she wants to marry the prince.


Yes, the theremin is a one-trick pony but that trick is so spectacular and unique that it is quite magical when it is done well. We do not do the theremin a favor trying to demonstrate its versatility by forcing it to do things it can't do. On the contrary, I think we do the theremin a disservice and end up marginalizing it even more than it already is. LESS IS MORE.


I've heard lots of theremin fans say that the theremin works beautifully in jazz, but I have never heard a jazz fan say it. 

Posted: 1/13/2012 2:09:42 PM

From: In between the Pitch and Volume hand ~ New England

Joined: 12/17/2010

Peter... you are a dream bubble popper lol.

But I do agree with you and clara that less is more. That might be why the theremin somehow found me, the genre i like to do is dream/ambient and the theremin is perfect for this genre. I do add some theremin to my music but I do it in a manner that is suiting to the theremin and doesn't sound like it is not blending (at least i think I accomplish that). If I cannot find the right effect or the results desired end up being not what I expected, then I do not persue...

Posted: 1/13/2012 3:57:26 PM
Thomas Grillo

From: Jackson Mississippi

Joined: 8/13/2006

I think it's safer to say that not "all" jazz is playable on theremin.

If you've not managed to master the art of crisp articulation, then you're not going to be able to play medium rate jazz works. I won't even think about the faster works.

I have found that if you avoid works like Dixieland, and fast modern works, you could actually do a decent job on the older slower works. That's assuming you're having a go at works by 20th century artists' works.

Copyright issues, and not being able to afford licensures for all the stuff I'd like to work with keep me limited to working on the works I've been composing on my own, or working with others on.

Keep it slow, to medium, and keep it within reason in the way of ability to tune with. Some jazz works are so "out there" in the way of chord structures, that it's impractical to add theremin to. (Not that I haven't at least explored it for my self.)

I tend to stick to composing works that sound more like the slow to medium rate World War II era jazz. I prefer more conventional chord structures which are more pleasing to the ear.

No, not all jazz can be played on theremin, but I think it's wrong to say that "no" jazz can be played on theremin.

On the other hand, not "all" theremins are suitable for jazz. To play some forms of jazz, the theremin should have the right voice for it. In some cases, you might want a theremin with a brassy, horn tone. In other cases, a more wood-wind tone or even a string tone would be called for. But that just depends on the type of jazz being played.

Posted: 1/13/2012 5:35:03 PM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

Thomas, I think that the kind of jazz that works on the theremin is, at least as far as the theremin is concerned, not "jazz" at all. Pamelia's AUTUMN LEAVES we think of as jazz because the piano is being played in a soft jazz style with all the classic jazz riffs, arpeggios and harmonies appropriate for that sound.

The theremin itself is not doing anything that could be characterized as jazz. 

When we talk about "jazz theremin" perhaps what we need to ask ourselves is whether, if we were to remove the background accompaniment, the solo "a cappella" theremin could still be considered JAZZ.


Posted: 1/13/2012 6:16:47 PM

From: In between the Pitch and Volume hand ~ New England

Joined: 12/17/2010

When I think about a genre of music I listen to the "whole ensemble" to determine what genre a "piece" is. If you take ANY instrument and just play that by itself it could be hard to decipher what genre they are actually playing.

Posted: 1/13/2012 8:44:42 PM

From: Hillsborough, NC (USA)

Joined: 2/13/2005

Thomas - I like your thoughts.  "Jazz" means a wide range of things.  I chose to focus on vocal jazz tunes in my original post to scope down the conversation a bit to a particular style/subset of jazz. 

I think it's important to try many styles of music on an instrument.  Maybe we haven't heard many examples yet (I personally haven't listened to Kip's jazz music yet to hear what he's doing), but that doesn't mean someone isn't going to push the envelope.

coalport - I like that last thought... What qualities of performance would make a solo theremin part "jazzy" to you?  What's it missing in your mind?


Posted: 1/14/2012 11:44:30 AM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

Amey: "If you take ANY instrument and just play that by itself it could be hard to decipher what genre they are actually playing".

If we were to take a traditional instrument, like the clarinet, that is commonly used for both classical music and jazz, we would hear immediately that what the instrument is required to do in Mozart's clarinet concerto is very different from what Artie Shaw or Benny Goodman did with the same instrument when they played jazz. New techniques had to be developed by clarinetists themselves in order to make the instrument weep and wail and hoot and shout and do all the wonderful things that the clarinet is capable of and that are demanded by the jazz idiom.

The theremin can't do these things. Changes of timbre, attack, spitfire series of notes and jazz embellishments etc., simply aren't possible on the instrument. I'm all for pushing the envelope but no one is going to be able to get the theremin to do something that is beyond its capabilities. What we end up doing instead, is revealing the limitations of the instrument while making ourselves look a bit goofballish!

Amey, IMNSHO, in your own work you have respected the natural limitations of the theremin and have used it with taste, restraint, and good musical judgment. Others have not been so judicious. In their desire to push the envelope they've pushed the instrument, and themselves, over the brink. They think they're flying but they're in freefall!

As thereminists, I think we need to be more objective than we are in regard to the instrument we love. I have seen unbelievably bad performances cheered and applauded by fellow theremin players either because they don't know how bad the playing was, or because they think they must be supportive come hell or high water.

Nobody wants to be a heterodyne fly in the ointment.

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