Jazz pianist Art Tatum asserted that there is “no such thing as a wrong note”. Tatum died in 1956, and therefore did not live to witness the release of Well, I Should Have…*, an album that puts that quote, along with a few other similar ones, to the ultimate test.
By his own admission, Jon Benjamin (Archer, Bob’s Burgers, Home Movies, et al.) cannot play the piano. Most people probably feel that said inability would preclude them from recording an album on which they play jazz piano. That Benjamin has done exactly that despite lacking even a shred of talent for the instrument is admirable, if perhaps ill-advised.
There are a few hurdles that an album whose principal musician possesses no skill whatsoever must clear, the greatest of which is the possibility of the central joke overstaying its welcome. Luckily, the album is only 30 minutes long, and five or six of those minutes are occupied with spoken-word segments, so if you got only a basic idea of what the album is about and feared being saddled with an hour of insufferable plonking, you can rest assured that isn’t the case. I listened to nearly the whole thing in a single commute to work, which about lines up with what it merits and doesn’t give the conceit enough time to grow stale.
Another hurdle is approximating the qualities of jazz within the parameters of comedy without coming off as a total jerk about it. Jazz is just as much about feeling as it is about technical proficiency, which you know if you’ve ever been in or near a conversation where someone (possibly even you yourself), provoked by the mere mention of jazz, affected a stuffy voice and joked, “It’s about the notes that aren’t there.” It’s easy to poke fun at this idea because it is so nakedly pretentious on its surface. But when you listen to this album, and you think about what it does not do—indeed, what its star performer is not capable of doing—you begin to understand why a jazz musician would say something like that.
Jon Benjamin may very well not know anything about music theory or be a fan of jazz, but I can’t escape the feeling that there’s more to the story than is being let on for the sake of the joke, because there are times when he exhibits an uncanny acumen for where to strike the piano and when. One may argue that a broken clock is right twice a day, but unless I’m willing myself to hear something that isn’t there, this broken clock has a better track record than that. It’s actually shocking, the number of times this album manages to fade plausibly into the background. Benjamin’s “talent” reaches a climax at the beginning of the album’s best track, “It Had to Be You”, in which he goes a full minute at the beginning without sounding totally awful before taking it completely off the rails and making you laugh again.
As insane as it sounds, Well, I Should Have…* actually succeeds more often than not at sounding like a legitimate jazz album, even with Jon Benjamin banging on the piano like a five-year-old. Weirdly enough, one can even envision a future in which it is viewed as a polarizing work, with various factions either proclaiming its genius from the mountaintops or denouncing it as a flaming bag of dung. Astoundingly, the only true misfire on the album is the final track, “Amy’s Song (The Bum Steer)”, a 90-second rap about anal sex that will actually make you wish he would get back to playing the piano.
I can sympathize with a certain mindset that wouldn’t find this sort of thing very funny. I don’t imagine you’d smile about this sort of idea if you’re an actual jazz musician struggling to get your own work recorded or make a living off of what you love doing, and here comes this buffoon dropping into a studio, surrounding himself with skilled session musicians, and basically crapping all over everything that makes jazz important to you. It’s tough to tell whether the session musicians in the album trailer are in on the joke are not—if they are, they have godlike deadpanning skills, and if they aren’t, then hey, at least they got paid. Fortunately, I don’t play jazz for a living, and even if I did I have to think I would find this as hilarious as I do now. If you appreciate jazz, you might find this funny. But if you don’t, you might actually find it funnier.