When the Wang Theatre at the Citi Performing Arts Center first opened in 1925, the ornate performance hall was known as the Metropolitan. Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox, which takes the stage there next Thursday, will offer listeners a ticket of sorts back to the Jazz Age of the theater’s beginnings, with Bradlee’s old-time piano anchoring the collective improvisation of a Dixieland ensemble.
Then they’ll get to the part of the song when Justin Bieber taunts an ex because she still hits his phone up.
Right from the start of the band’s five-year ascent on YouTube, Postmodern Jukebox made its method clear: The group takes the pop hits of the text-and-Snapchat age and recasts them as meticulously arranged period pieces, from ragtime to doo-wop. Conceived around the thoroughly modern distribution model of the YouTube channel, Postmodern Jukebox gives a taste of those bygone musical fads to a new generation, one that has only ever known instant access to the music it wants.
“That,” says Bradlee, “has never happened before.”
Despite the vintage sound, his group’s work is not intended as a pure throwback, says Bradlee, a 35-year-old New Jersey native, who recently moved to Los Angeles after launching PMJ from a Queens basement in 2011.
“It’s more of an alternative universe, in a way,” he says. “We might even go into something a little bit hip-hop or funky. It’s more . . . an aesthetic – you kind of know it when you hear it.”
That aesthetic holds true across the highlights of the rotating group’s ever-expanding pool of talent, from Aubrey Logan’s New Orleans brass-band version of Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” to LaVance Colley’s Charleston-style take on CeeLo’s “Forget You.” Then there’s Swedish newcomer Gunhild Carling, whose absurdly joyful hot jazz version of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” features the singer taking euphoric solos on trumpet, trombone, and Berber-style bagpipes.
In just a few years, Bradlee’s prolific collective has already self-released 11 albums. But there was no “starter kit,” he says – no one-stop shopping for some of their most popular songs – until “The Essentials.” The band’s first best-of album — an 18-track compilation featuring the group’s radically old-fashioned reworkings of “Hey Ya,” “All About That Bass,” and other radio hits of the new millennium – is available Friday.
In addition to a CD version and MP3 downloads, “The Essentials” will be pressed on vinyl. Given the ragtime-era setting of most of PMJ’s cover songs, it seems a shame the set won’t appear on 78 rpm gramophone records as well.
Bradlee says he does own a cylinder phonograph, an antique mechanical machine that can play his one, barely audible wax cylinder. (It’s a recording of an Irish tenor, he thinks.)
Working outside the conventional music industry in more ways than one, Postmodern Jukebox doesn’t announce all the performers expected at any given performance. Drawing from a roster that now numbers nearly 70 singers and musicians, Bradlee varies the lineup from city to city, depending on location and availability.
Sara Niemietz, whose PMJ contributions include a Latin jazz twist on the disco classic “I Will Survive,” will be one of the featured performers in Boston. She also takes the lead on PMJ’s versions of OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” and Bieber’s “Love Yourself,” for which, she says, she had Bessie Smith – the “Empress of the Blues” – in mind.
“I know Bessie more than Bieber, so it was easier to approach that way,” she says on the phone from California. “We just had a party with it.”
Though Niemietz headlines her own shows, acts, and does theater work, she likes the all-for-one-and-one-for-all camaraderie of the PMJ players.
‘It’s about creating these magical moments, with people seeing something amazing happen before their eyes.’
“It’s almost like you’re on a team,” she says. “Everyone is working together to create a larger experience.”
That’s one of Bradlee’s goals. “The key to putting together a great variety show is multiple singers and a balanced cast,” Bradlee says. “It’s about creating these magical moments, with people seeing something amazing happen before their eyes.”
Bradlee’s love for the music of his great-grandparents’ era started early. As a kid, he approached his piano lessons with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Then he heard Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
“It had a very different sound than other classical music,” Bradlee recalls. “The piano was brash and exciting. All of a sudden a switch flipped, and I became super obsessed with this music called ‘jazz.’ ” To entertain his buddies in school, he would recast their favorite songs – say, “What I Got” by the California ska punk band Sublime – as something you might have heard in a black-and-white Hollywood feature film.
He also drew inspiration from a short-lived trend as he entered his teen years: the 1990s swing revival.
“That was the biggest thing for a while, but then it disappeared,” he says. “I’ve never seen something disappear so fast, except maybe Pokemon Go.”
Years later, while trying to find work as a jazz pianist in New York, he scored a surprise viral video with a ragtime medley of ’80s pop songs. That led to the first PMJ videos, shot with a single, fixed camera in his basement. The real breakthrough came in early 2013, with a snappy stride-piano cover of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s smash hit “Thrift Shop.”
When Bradlee first realized Postmodern Jukebox had the potential to become his livelihood, he consciously sought to create something that could last.
“We’re certainly not the first to imagine taking a song and putting it in a different genre,” Bradlee acknowledges. “Plenty of people have done that. But PMJ builds on the concept.”
And in some ways, Postmodern Jukebox shares qualities with the site where it first found its audience. Much like YouTube, Bradlee says, his old-time collective has become “a great platform for discovering new talent.”
Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox
At the Citi Wang Theatre. Oct. 6 at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $39.50. www.citicenter.orgJames Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.