We bop our way through some of the best jazzy video game music, highlighting some of the the styles and artists that influenced it.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no more than tourist when it comes to jazz. I’ve taken the Miles Davis tour and spent day trips with Brad Mehldau; been baffled by beebop and blown away by big bands; had some herb with Herbie and whisky with Wynton. But if you asked me who played drums with Keith Jarrett at Vassar College in ‘75 or what a flugal cadence is, I’d be stumped.
We live in an unprecedented age of musical plenty: anyone online can access an unfathomably vast reservoir of music, which places a premium on anything that can help steer us to the good stuff. Through original and licensed soundtracks, video games have been exposing players to many different styles of jazz, probably without them even realising it.
So, to celebrate the games and composers that have successfully got gamers in the swing of things, here’s a smattering of the smooth, the soulful and the downright stylish.
Each track is embedded below, and I’ve also added as many of them as possible to the respective playlists below, but not every track is on every platform:
“Diggsieland” by Jim Fowler from Diggs Nightcrawler
Style: Big band, Dixieland, trad jazz
Only a few of the tracks are available online, including "Hump’s Dump" and "Diggsieland":
Influences: Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Count Basie
PlayStation’s augmented reality peripheral Wonderbook was pretty short-lived, but one of the best things that resulted from it was that PlayStation’s Principal Composer, Jim Fowler, had the opportunity to write and record an incredible live jazz score for Diggs Nightcrawler.
Sony teamed up with the Oscar-winning animators Moonbot to create the noir adventure for children and, as Fowler kindly explained when we reached out to him, jazz was a natural fit: “We talked about classic big band film scores like Anatomy of a Murder and Man With the Golden Arm and how the music could cross over from score to source (in the nightclub scene, for instance) and back again. We were all excited for a full on jazz score, and since the only way to get that sound is to have real players, the live recording came naturally once the direction was decided on.
Duke Ellington – “Take the A Train”:
An extra tidbit from Fowler: “I was keen on achieving a ‘traditional/modern’ sound — as if it were a remastered mono recording. AIR Studios’ Jake Jackson (who engineered and mixed the soundtrack) used all kinds of interesting mics and we recorded the entire ensemble together. When it came to mixing, the only digital element in the mix was Pro Tools itself — all of the compressors, EQs and other processing were ‘outboard’ gear (i.e. physical boxes), some of which had to be got out of storage! We also ran it through a reel to reel tape machine (and back into the computer) to get that warm, vintage sound, but with the output still being in stereo, digital and split up in a way that we could manipulate it to be more interactive in the game.”
Laced With Wax interviewed Jim Fowler last year: “PlayStation’s Principal Composer on live playing vs samples and the future of VGM” was published in both article form and as a podcast via Cane & Rinse’s Sound of Play.
“Inkwell Isle One” by Kristofer Maddigan from Cuphead
Style: Dixieland, ragtime
Influences: Cab Calloway, Scott Joplin, Louis Armstrong
By his own admission on the Music Respawn podcast, composer-arranger Kristofer Maddigan went overboard in terms of the quantity (and, in our minds, the sheer excellence) of music he wrote for Cuphead — the ‘classic run and gun action game’ styled to look like 1930s Fleischer and Walt Disney animations. (He was also interviewed on another wonderful video game music podcast, Level with Emily Reese.)
Cab Calloway – "The Old Man Of the Mountain":
Befitting of the extraordinary attention to detail of the game’s visuals, the quality of the playing on Cuphead's score (Spotify, Apple Music) is astonishing, especially with so many of the cues hurtling along at a breakneck speed to match the intense boss battles. Maddigan also committed himself to writing and recording tracks that were tidily finished compositions, meaning that the soundtrack album is populated with complete pieces rather than looped cues that fade out after a while.
“What's Your Poison (The Bar)” by Matt Bonham and Tim Cotterell from The Sexy Brutale
Style: Swing, electro swing
This track starts off as cool jazz before picking up a gentle electro swing vibe around the minute mark:
Influences: Caravan Palace, Chris Barber, Acker Bilk
2017’s The Sexy Brutale is a charming story-based puzzle game that, art style-wise, looks a bit like a mash-up of Overcooked, Luigi’s Mansion, Final Fantasy VII and Grim Fandango. Its striking look is matched by a distinctive, quirky soundtrack (OST on YouTube) that often sounds like a small trad swing ensemble; but also employs more modern hip-hop beats and electro swing grooves to spice things up.
Tape Five - “A Cool Cat In Town”:
“Main Theme” by Andrew Hale from L.A. Noire
Style: Cool jazz, 1940s film noir scores
Influences: Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker
Gamers should be crying out for more big budget period video games. Yes, we’ve been spoiled by Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire and Mafia 3, among others, but as far as game music goes, it would be wonderful to see more composers get the budget to explore diverse genres and instrumentation rather than stick to bombastic Hollywood-ised fantasy or sci-fi fare.
Miles Davis — “Blue in Green”:
Andrew Hale, Simon Hale and Woody Jackson’s score for L.A. Noire (Spotify; Apple Music) wears its influences on its sleeve, pinching tastefully from scores to various ‘40s films (including those by Alfred Hitchcock) and a range of mid-20th Century jazz. Although L.A. Noire is set in 1947, the composition team didn’t stick doggedly to music from that exact period, preferring to go by general mood — indeed, they absolutely nailed ‘lonely jazz’ with this and other cues.
“Alpha, Beta, Cocktail” by Daniel Olsén from Device 6
Style: Bossa nova, latin jazz, ’60s film soundtracks
Influences: Antonio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto, Stan Getz
Device 6 is a legitimately creepy game: part puzzler, part interactive novella, which evokes an eerie blend ’60s spy and sci-fi films/shows, empty museums and the work of Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte.
Composer Daniel Olsén was incredibly successful in adding a subtle layer of atmosphere to the game (Spotify, Apple Music), playing on lounge/café/lift musak tropes. I can only guess that his brief for this particular cue was: “Imagine the ’60s office from Mad Men but all the doors are locked, everyone’s a mannequin and you’ll never escape the light bossa looping in the lobby.”
Antonio Carlos Jobim – “Brazil”:
“Opening Theme” by Yasunori Mitsuda from 10,000 Bullets (Tsukiyo ni Saraba [Moonlit Shadow])
Style: Big band, jazz funk, R&B
Influences: Average White Band, Tower of Power, Buddy Rich
PS2 third-person shooter 10,000 Bullets starts with a bang — two cool dudes with improbable hair and wearing stylish trench coats run down the side of an apartment building whilst firing at road-level goons to the sound of highly energetic big band jazz funk. Kind of like The Matrix crossed with Tower of Power.
The incredibly prolific and talented Yasunori Mitsuda’s contributions to the score (alongside Miki Higashino; OST on YouTube) are funky like a train — a far cry from his celtic and symphonic works. One wonders if there’s any style he can’t take on.
Average White Band – “Pick Up The Pieces”:
“Main Street” by Steve Kirk from Voodoo Vince
Style: Gypsy jazz, hot club jazz
Influences: Django Reinhardt, Stéphane Grappelli
We highlighted a few of our favourite tracks in our listicle “Bounce away! 12 of the best music tracks from classic 3D platformers”, and neglected to shout out Steve Kirk’s fantastic score for Xbox platformer Voodoo Vince (Spotify). Something about the art style and cheeky, choppy tunes evokes Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge but, despite a 2017 remaster, it’s unlikely Voodoo Vince will be as well remembered as the LucasArts classic or more highly-regarded character platformers of the time.
Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli – "Minor Swing":
“Bosco’s” by Jared Emerson-Johnson from Telltale’s Sam & Max Save the World
Style: Big band, latin jazz, swing
Influences: Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Hines, Lionel Hampton
It’s worth playing Telltale’s three seasons of Sam & Max games just to hear the fantastic jazz-infused soundtrack (there’s some rib-tickling writing in there too.) During season one (later renamed ‘Save the World’), composer Jared Emerson-Johnson sounds like he’s in his element (OST on YouTube), using as many jazz colours as he can across the scores. At points, he’ll deploy what can only be described as ‘noise jazz’ for darker moments; whilst conjuring up some playful, zesty ’50s/’60s dishwasher advert musak when the mood takes him, as it does here.
Dizzy Gillespie – “Manteca”:
“Casino Calavera” by Peter McConnell from Grim Fandango
Style: Swing, big band, swing revival
Influences: Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
Composer Peter McConnell has talked about how the timing of Grim Fandango’s development in the mid-to-late-’90s coincided with a surge of interest in both swing music and the Mexican Day of the Dead. As much as the gods of swing influenced the jazzier cues in Grim Fandango (e.g. Benny Goodman and Count Basie), McConnell cited going to see swing revival bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy in San Francisco’s Mission District, where he sourced most of the players that performed on the score.
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy – “King of Swing”:
Since Grim Fandango is a comedy as much as anything, perhaps McConnell felt less restrained in writing catchy melodies and toe-tapping tempos than he might otherwise have been. It’s lucky the score is so brilliant, because players will inevitably have to listen to it looping for long periods as they frustratedly try and untangle the web of tricky puzzles.
The Grand Theft Auto series has included lots of different types of jazz over the years, although it’s difficult to pick a standout track because of the way the in-game radio stations function — as tastefully curated compilations of great music.
In a different way, the (2008 onwards) Fallout and BioShock series both rely on an intriguing aesthetic juxtaposition that drives their worlds and marketing: contrasting the ‘old-timey’ tweeness of early-mid 20th Century popular music with the savage violence of a post-apocalyptic world gone to the dogs. Jazz songs — from the Ed Sheeran’s and Rihanna’s of their time — are placed in a new context, becoming associated with dark, dangerous palaces of pain and horrifying mutant psychopaths.
“La Mer” by Charles Trenet perf. Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli from BioShock 2/Infinite: Burial at Sea
Style: Gypsy jazz
It was a masterstroke for the BioShock team to use “La Mer” by French chanteur Charles Trenet and its English language equivalent, Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea”, in-game as well as in trailers — with the song becoming synonymous with the series.
In BioShock, the sea is an oppressive, ever-present blanket of darkness over Rapture; yet lyrically in “La Mer”/“Beyond the Sea”, the ocean is a shimmering thing of beauty, representing exotic travel and trysts on the beach. The sentiment of such jazzy post-war love songs seems so alien and otherworldly to us in the 21st Century (released in 2007, BioShock is set in 1960).
Reinhardt and Grappelli’s rendition sounds like more of a jazz oldie compared to Bobby Darin’s crooning version, which was recorded a decade later.
“Civilization (Bongo Bongo Bongo)” by Bob Hilliard and Carl Sigman perf. The Andrews Sisters and Danny Kaye from Fallout 3
Style: Swing, big band
As you traverse the mostly grim Capital Wasteland in Fallout 3, you’d be forgiven for tuning in to Galaxy News Radio every now and again for a burst of upbeat tuneage. One of the songs that really pokes out is this satirical (in a post-colonial sense) ditty, with the insanely catchy hook “Bongo, bongo, bongo, I don't wanna leave the Congo, oh no no no no nooooo.” Truly music to mini nuke super mutants by.
“Solace” by Scott Joplin from BioShock Infinite
We wrote about the effectiveness of this track in “Sparsity blues: An ode to peace and quiet in video games”, where we praised its use during loading screens to juxtapose the violence of both the gameplay in BioShock Infinite and Garry Schyman’s aggressive string quartet cues. Also, is there anything as disquieting as that scratchy old gramophone sound?
- Thimbleweed Park (Bandcamp) features some dreamy jazz a la Twin Peaks (the track “Town), as well as some lift music bossa (“Hotel Elevator”) by Steve Kirk, mentioned above for his work on Voodoo Vince.
- So I’m led to believe, Persona 5 is stuffed to the gills with nu jazz/acid jazz/jazz funk goodness (Youtube).
- Yasunori Mitsuda released an acid jazz album of Chrono Trigger arrangements (YouTube).
- The Prescription For Sleep albums by GENTLE LOVE are lovely, if you like chill-out sax and piano.
- Promise is an album of jazz arrangements of Yoko Shimomura's Legend of Mana score (YouTube).
- Austin Wintory got down and sleazy with his music for Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded (Bandcamp).
- I defy you to find a catchier tune than Billy Martin’s “Gourmand Land ~ Glacier Cocktail/Food World Paradise” from Rayman Origins.
- Rhythm Thief has plenty of jazz tracks mixed in with more common Japanese game soundtrack elements (YouTube).
- There are some wonderful live jazz tracks by Masashi Hamauzu on the Final Fantasy XIII soundtrack, including “Can’t Catch a Break” and “Pulse de Chocobo”.
- “The Credits Roll” of Super Mario 3D World will have you tapping your toes.
Inevitably, we’ve missed some great jazz in video games — feel free to tell us so: