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Jazz United Takes the Measure of Pixar's 'Soul'

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Disney/Pixar

“The tune is just an excuse to bring out the you. That’s why I became a jazz musician.”

This morsel of insight drops near the midpoint of Pixar’s Soul, one of the most heralded movies of this holiday season, and one of the biggest jazz films in many a moon.

But is it actually a jazz film? Too few features about our music exist — and when they do come along, the stakes are unbelievably high. To be authentic, any jazz film requires a level of detail that too many filmmakers and actors have swept aside.

Soul is nothing less than a meditation on the meaning of life. But jazz does play a critical role in the film, which tells the story of Joe Gardner, a middle-school music teacher forced to confront his ultimate purpose on the way to a fateful dream gig as a pianist in New York City.

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Credit Pixar/Soul
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Pixar/Soul
A scene from 'Soul,' as Joe Gardner, left, sits in with the Dorothea Williams Quartet.

Gardner’s parts are ghosted by Jon Batiste, who also wrote the jazz portions of the score. He enlisted a dream team in the studio, including saxophonists Tia Fuller and Eddie Barbash; bassist Linda May Han Oh; and drummers Marcus Gilmore and his legendary grandfather, Roy Haynes. Notable jazz clubs were used as models, and we were impressed with the near-perfect depiction of the bustling, pre-COVID metropolis of New York City.

So despite that granular attention to detail, how does Soul still fall short of the mark? We get into that in detail during this episode of Jazz United — even calling on some expert analysis from a couple of younger Pixar connoisseurs. 

The music in this episode is from Soul: The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Jazz United is produced by Sarah Kerson.

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Greg Bryant has been a longtime curator of improvisational music. At the age of 3 in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, he was borrowing his father’s records and spinning them on his Fisher Price turntable. Taking in diverse sounds of artistry from Miles Davis, Les McCann, James Brown, Weather Report and Jimi Hendrix gave shape to Greg's musical foundation and started him on a path of nonstop exploration.
A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.