Contemplating the path that contemporary music has evolved through, it’s difficult not to stop by jazz for at least a moment – the acquired taste issue, performing mastery and improvisation have been dividing listeners for many decades. The point of this article, though, is not defending or attacking one side or the other, but rather something of a Freudian psychoanalysis and a deeper look into the subject genre. Because if we looked at jazz through the eye of illustrative music, we could find out that it’s not as bad as some people make it. Moreover – it fits the soundtrack requirements extremely well.

The testament of Grim Fandango, it’s music, shows perfectly how many of jazz characteristics fit the soundtracks.

The victim which we’ll base our discussion on is the score of one of the most interesting adventure games ever developed. The testament of Grim Fandango, it’s music, shows perfectly how many of jazz characteristics fit the soundtracks – for example let’s take a look at the element of improvisation. If well thought-through, it helps battle any audial impasse and it’s a window for artificial intelligence to unleash the full potential (because, based on current technology trends, AI will in the future compose soundtracks in real time and with full responsiveness to what is happening on screen). Going further: flexible instrumentation (from swinging big-bands to much more intimate duets/trios) assures the artistic freedom while not distorting too much our idea of jazz. And, as music that often takes on the role of ambient (what is usually played in supermarkets, restaurants, at the dentist’s office?), it also has a good starting position in the world of soundtracks.

Of course, every artistic path has it’s certain style, and we wouldn’t really put Batushka kind of black metal in My Little Pony franchise. Although illustrative music’s status quo allows us (or perhaps, allowed us?) to put symphonic tracks wherever possible, jazz falls much further from the tree. It does not change the fact, though, that all the aforementioned characteristics let composers and developers easily create new and exciting audio visions. Some people might be surprised that we had to wait until the year 1998 to get a jazz soundtrack… but was it not worth it? Especially because it seems to have started on it’s own a certain trend involving New Orlean-based genre (click, click).

Jazz lets composers and developers easily create new and exciting audio visions.

Grim Fandango is not just a safe ambler (in opposition to, for example, The Sims’ music), but rather a little bit crazy pioneer, which was not afraid to found the musical experience as a whole, on two very alien, for soundtracks, genres. Other than jazz, it’s worth to mention the usage of latino music – a choice equally safe (fits perfectly with the Mexican Día de Muertos, doesn’t it?) as it is curious. With quite a lot of humour being present in the game, such musical decision compliments it well.

Considering how the game’s atmosphere relies heavily on the Spanish/Mexican language and culture (for example, the characters look like Mexican figurines and many of them have Spanish names), we could ask a question as to why Peter McConnell (the composer) along with LucasArts didn’t decide to emphasize traditional Mexican music in the score. That would have been a solution at the same time effective and extraordinary.

Is it still jazz, or is it a perfect counterfeit?

Of course, it’s hard not to look away from the „soundtrack” vibe of this… soundtrack – we can hear solutions that any listener can easily distinguish as much more practical, in terms of gameplay, than artistic. Without considering the gameplay needs and the narrative’s consistency, and if the music consisted only of unedited jazz standards, we would get Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs. Here comes another question: is it still jazz, or is it a perfect counterfeit?


Marek Domagała

Electric guitar, cinema and as much Rocket League as possible. Loves synthesizers and wouldn't mind some good black metal either. Taking the first steps as a video game composer.