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Jazz Sabbath Live in LA: Jazz Trio Proved Metal, Jazz, and Comedy Work in Perfect Harmony

With the help of APM, Jazz Sabbath performed in the U.S. for the first time at the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood.


Jazz Sabbath
The Holy Trinity of Jazz Sabbath: Adam Wakeman (Piano), Tim Landers (Upright Bass), and Tal Bergman (Drums)

Sitting in a dimly lit jazz club with a filet mignon and a cocktail atop a red tablecloth, you wouldn’t know you’re about to listen to Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” 


And if you asked Milton Keanes, band leader of Jazz Sabbath and comedic alter ego of accomplished English keyboardist and guitarist Adam Wakeman, you wouldn’t be. Instead, you’re about to listen to the original “Iron Man,” canonically written as a jazz track by Jazz Sabbath in the 1960s and, in reality, arranged by Wakeman for Jazz Sabbath Vol. 1 (2020).  


On June 11th and 12th, Jazz Sabbath performed at the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood, sharing with sold-out audiences their effortless blend of jazz and metal. With support from APM—which represents expansive Wakeman’s music library Adam Wakeman Presents—Jazz Sabbath’s L.A. series marked the group’s first performance in the U.S. The English jazz trio is normally composed of Wakeman, Jack Tustin, and Dylan Howe, and in Los Angeles, Wakeman was joined by seasoned jazz musicians and friends of APM Tal Bergman and Tim Landers

Is it jazz? Is it heavy metal? Is it a comedic bit? For Wakeman—who plays with the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Annie Lennox, and even Black Sabbath—it’s a delightful mix of all three, and one that consistently works, something any fan walking in already wearing their jazz Sabbath t-shirt would tell you. Jazz Sabbath is a project that is as near and dear to the hearts of its fans as it is to Wakeman; one couple had traveled to the UK to see Jazz Sabbath and were first in line at the door on night one to greet him on their home turf.  


Since 2020, Jazz Sabbath has released two albums—Vol. 1 and Vol 2. —featuring Wakeman’s instrumental arrangements of Black Sabbath classics like “Snowblind” and “Iron Man.”  


The basis of Jazz Sabbath is a fictional tale of a jazz band wronged by Black Sabbath in the late 1960s, and, according to Wakeman, it’s a story that too often is believed. To combat this, Wakeman put together a fake documentary featuring rock titans like Billy Idol and original members of bands like Megadeath, yes, ELO, Motörhead, and yes, even Black Sabbath. A clip from “Before Black Sabbath: There Was Jazz Sabbath” was shown at the start of each night at the Catalina Jazz Club.

The energetic and anticipatory atmosphere on both evenings at the Catalina Jazz Club was palpable. It was a special moment for Jazz Sabbath and U.S. fans as evidenced by a lengthy line to get in and a long line to get an autograph and picture from Wakeman on the way out. While Wakeman as Milton comically reminisced on his time writing Jazz Sabbath’s music in the 1960s, a well-dressed crowd murmured and chattered in the jazz club and you couldn’t help but feel that, like the fictional Jazz Sabbath, you were peering into a window of an era of music that is not gone but perhaps too-oft forgotten. 


When I spoke with Wakeman ahead of Jazz Sabbath’s first night in L.A., he told me he was expecting a “London audience.”  


“Such a lot goes on in this city, I'm half expecting people to leave halfway through,” he told me.  


Imagine Wakeman's surprise when he returned from a ten-minute intermission on night one—eighty-six-year-old jazz musicians need to use the bathroom, he chided—to find the full audience all still there wanting more. And how could they not, as the group’s debut performance in the U.S. was instantly unforgettable. 


Not many jazz concerts start with clips from a mockumentary straight out of This Is Spinal Tap (1984), and every tongue-in-cheek joke and admittance to Jazz Sabbath’s rightful place in music history elicited laughter from the crowd. Thankfully, unlike the people who still urge the jazz group to take legal action in YouTube comment sections, everyone in Los Angeles seemed to be in on the joke.  


While the story and source material fill a perfect niche for rock fans of days gone by, the level of musicianship and talent present in Jazz Sabbath ensures that the “joke” is not the most interesting part of the project.  


With Jazz Sabbath, metal swings, and swoons. It grooves on the drums and dances across a grand piano’s ivories. Forget lightning rock guitar riffs; Wakeman electrifies the piano during his solos, translating the all-consuming power of metal into an invigorating jazz performance.  


It’s no small feat, and beyond the costuming and arrangements is a clear level of care Wakeman puts into every performance. For him, it’s not about how many people show up—in fact, he’s often confident they will, and they do—it’s about making sure he gives the best performance possible to the fans that continue to make Jazz Sabbath happen.  


“I never think, ‘Christ, there’s not going to be anybody there,’” Wakeman said. “My concern is to make sure I play as well as I can and try not to go into ‘Children of the Grave’ when I play ‘Snowblind’ because they’re both in C Sharp.” 


The fact that metal and jazz may seem like an unlikely pairing to some makes Jazz Sabbath all the more impressive, and, to Wakeman, there is something about Black Sabbath that lent itself to jazz. 


 “I think back then there was less pigeon-holing of music, it was just music,” Wakeman said. “Bill Ward definitely came from that jazz background.”  


Calling back to times when festivals would feature progressive rock bands like Wakeman’s dad’s Yes with metal bands like Black Sabbath on the same bill, Wakeman noted that the sharing of influences across genres makes arrangements like these even more possible. 


“It’d be much harder if I was trying to do a jazz version of Slipknot songs,” he said. “The musicality of Black Sabbath makes this a bit easier.” 


Jazz Sabbath’s performance was cool and critically impressive, emblematic of the type of expertise and elevated craftsmanship musicians like Wakeman, Bergman, and Landers bring to the stage. Save for source material, the concerts had the hallmarks of a jazz club, enthusiastic but (generally) polite applause for instrumental solos and a room full of heads nodding to the beat. However, when showstopping drum solos from Bergman were met with hoots and hollers from the crowd, you would remember where you are: a Black Sabbath concert, sort of. At the end of the day, at the heart of these songs is rock music, and the audience couldn’t help but start clapping long before a song was over.  


Understated and subtle humor broke up expert instrumental arrangements, and both kept you on your toes the whole evening. In a long-winded but hilarious story of searching for song inspiration and battling with the record label, Wakeman tells us how his song “Derrick the Ironing Man” became “Derrick” which became “Ironing Man” before settling on “Iron Man,” at which point the audience is laughing and clapping in anticipation for the instantly recognizable tune. 


The comedy and showmanship of Jazz Sabbath is a bonus to an evening of great jazz. When Wakeman–or Milton–ascended the stage, cane in hand, donned in makeup and a grey wig ageing him the necessary decades to fit the band’s origin story, it was clear he was having as much fun as we were. Wakeman certainly has pulled from the musical geniuses he worked with when creating this character. 


 “I had a different understanding of people like Ozzy and Alice Cooper where they have a persona and the show is so important, it’s the whole package,” he said, “There’s something about putting hair and makeup together, it’s weird it does help with the transformation into another character, which helps with the whole show.” 


Despite the old-age-make-up and the tales from Wakeman’s youth, his energy is lively and infectious. Part jazz performance part standup comedy, Jazz Sabbath is a way for Wakeman to indulge in a different side of himself while also doing what he does best: making music.  


“Racing drivers are generally frustrated musicians, keyboard players are generally frustrated guitar players,” Wakeman said to me. “I would have loved to have acted. I love comedy and I know I’ll never be a comedian, so this is a way I can get away with it.” 


An especially funny moment came from Wakeman’s stand-up bit about romance in the summer of 1968, and he urged us to stare deep into the eyes of who we brought with us tonight before promptly playing his arrangement of “Children of the Grave.” It doesn’t take away from the talent; The near-ten-minute rendition of “Paranoid” which leads the group’s second album—much better than the dreadful three-minute “original,” Wakeman chided—puts all the jokes aside, closing both evenings greeted with standing ovations.  


However, it is this unique intersection of humor and jazz and metal that has made Jazz Sabbath difficult to market in the U.S., and abroad. In the U.K. and in Europe, Wakeman and the record label do all their own booking and promoting.   

“I think people struggle with, is it comedy? Is it jazz? Is it heavy metal?” Wakeman said. “They get really confused, but what we’ve found is it works, and we’re confident enough in the U.K. and parts of Europe where we’ll hire the venues, hire the piano in, and do the marketing and we’ll know it’ll be alright.”  


In Australia, where Jazz Sabbath will head next, they originally booked five shows. After four sold out, they’ve added another three. 


While the albums are very well done, the live performance of Jazz Sabbath is a very special experience.  


“We go to great places like this, big jazz clubs, small theaters, intimate enough to feel like you’re a part of what’s going. I think this would get a little bit lost if it gets too big a venue,” Wakeman said.  


In many ways, the whole concert felt like an inside joke between all 250 of us in the room. But that only gets to happen when venues give Jazz Sabbath a chance. 


“As long as you’ve got the right people behind it, it makes it easier. We really struggled to find anyone who would take us seriously here in America and fortunately APM stepped in to get involved,” Wakeman said. 


When they do get to play, Wakeman has found that what they’re trying to do always comes through. “I figure the reason that is, is because Black Sabbath’s music is popular everywhere. And that where there are Black Sabbath fans, people seem to get this.” When Wakeman’s riffing would turn to a familiar melody, audience members smiled in shared recollection. These moments are crafted by Jazz Sabbath and resonate with everyone, Black Sabbath fan or not. 


“We find that it’s not just all metal fans coming to the shows, it’s music lovers and jazz fans that have never heard of Black Sabbath,” Wakeman said. “Black Sabbath fans might not even recognize what the songs are,” he added, “but if you take it apart you can go alright, that’s the melody that’s being replayed here and then the solo sections are just free for all.” 


Part of the joy of Jazz Sabbath is being caught off guard by the songs you know being blended into a new arrangement that you don’t. Especially in their live performances, the improvisational nature of jazz that has been brought to Black Sabbath’s music flourishes. 


“We don’t want it to be too regimented,” Wakeman said about how Jazz Sabbath performs and arranges the songs.  


When putting together an arrangement, the most melodic and memorable pieces of a Black Sabbath track are pulled into the Jazz Sabbath cut.  


“‘Iron Man' for example, is the riff that is the most important thing, not the vocal melody, so I don't play the vocal melody throughout the song. Whereas in songs like ‘Snowblind,’ the vocal melody is really important, so the chord structure is different, but the melody is there,” Wakeman explained. 


And just as Jazz Sabbath has turned Black Sabbath fans on to jazz, arranging these pieces and performing in jazz clubs around the world has taught Wakeman a lot about jazz, too. In a way, Jazz Sabbath pushes the boundaries of what jazz and even metal can be and serves as a reminder of the way different genres of music can complement each other. Who says metal can’t be jazz and jazz can’t be comedy? Contrary to popular belief, as Wakeman simply put it, “they all mix together nicely.” 


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