Combo players: The Hard Modes mix jazz improv with a love of video games

The Hard Modes' goal, says Greg Weaver (center), is to get jazzheads and gamers into the same room to appreciate something together. Photo by Tristan Williams The Hard Modes’ goal, says Greg Weaver (center), is to get jazzheads and gamers into the same room to appreciate something together. Photo by Tristan Williams

Greg Weaver has been playing video games since…well, since he can remember. Growing up, his family had an Atari system and his cousin had a classic Nintendo NES. One particularly exciting Christmas, the family got a Super Nintendo system.

The Weaver siblings spent hours playing on the consoles, immersed in the worlds contained therein, but when their dad put on Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, they’d boogie down. Weaver was particularly into the songs with heavy sax, and when he was about 6 years old, he started begging his parents for a saxophone of his own.

By the time Weaver got his wish (and a PlayStation), he was in sixth grade and more than ready for a wind instrument—all that blowing on video game cartridges to fix the glitches just might have helped increase his lung capacity (emphasis on the “might”), he says.

About two decades later, Weaver still plays video games and saxophone, and he combines his love for the two in The Hard Modes, a jazz ensemble that plays original arrangements of video game music and counts American jazz icons Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman, as well as Japanese video game composers Yasunori Mitsuda and Nobuo Uematsu, among its influences.

The Hard Modes will play C’ville Coffee Saturday night, with Weaver on tenor and soprano saxophones, Brandon Walsh on trumpet, Trevor Williams on vibes, André La Velle on bass, Nick Berkin on keys, and Pat Hayes on drums.

Weaver, who arranges most of The Hard Modes’ pieces, has been playing video game music himself for years now. In middle school, he’d pluck out the “Zelda: Ocarina of Time” theme on his parents’ stand-up piano; other times, he and friends would take midi files of their favorite game music and feed them into a computer program that would print out corresponding sheet music, allowing the friends to play their favorite game tunes before jazz band practice started.

But it wasn’t until Weaver’s fourth-year music recital at UVA that the jazz musician, who studied with John D’earth and Jeff Decker, arranged some of his favorite game music for saxophone, combining two tunes—“Proto Man” and “Gemini Man” from Mega Man 3—for the program.

Weaver guesses that when most people hear the phrase “video game music,” they think about synthesizer bleeps and bloops, the earworm melodies from 8-bit games like Super Mario Brothers and Tetris that stick in your head for hours. But video game music has come a long way, and game music composers have fewer limitations than they did, says Weaver. Some of the soundtracks have been so popular, they’ve been released as albums.

In recent years, video game music has made its way into orchestra repertoires—like The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses tour, which made a stop in town at John Paul Jones Arena in April 2016. And rock bands, such as heavy metal instrumental group Powerglove (named for the Nintendo controller accessory), play versions of video game music, too.

It only makes sense for a jazz group to do it, though video game music hasn’t caught on as quickly in the jazz world, says Weaver. “Throughout time, jazz has taken the popular music of the era and adapted it” into the language of jazz, he says, and when you think about how much time people spend playing video games, this music is some of the most popular stuff out there. A few groups have done it, but it often comes out sounding like lounge or elevator music, says Weaver.

“It’s easy to take a piece of video game music, arrange it, and make it really cheesy,” he says, in part because video game music “is kind of humorous” to begin with. It’s more difficult to strike a balance between a thoughtful arrangement that honors both the spirit of jazz and the playfulness of the original composition. The Hard Modes are up to the challenge.

Weaver focuses on “adapting that rich, harmonic, rhythmic, melodic language that jazz has, to these video game tunes,” and makes very deliberate choices about which pieces the group will adapt and play. On Saturday, they’ll play selections from the Game Boy classic Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening; critically acclaimed modern game Undertale; some from Chrono Cross, one of the earliest games to gain recognition for its soundtrack (composed by Mitsuda, who claims classical, jazz, and even Celtic influence on his music); and an arrangement of a tune from Secret of Mana nestled within one from Secret of Evermore (Walsh arranged this one).

The goal, says Weaver, is to get jazzheads and gamers into the same room to appreciate something together. The Hard Modes want to put on a good show, one that proves the strength of video game music composition to the jazz fans while opening up the world of jazz music to gamers, challenging any preconceived notion either group has of the other’s art. “There’s such a connection between the two; hopefully we can blur the lines a little bit,” says Weaver.

Weaver feels that connection most strongly during the improvisational moments of The Hard Modes’ performances. In jazz improv, “you’re keeping the melody in mind, using it as an influence on what you’re playing. It may not be obvious, but it’s in the back of your mind. And with these video game tunes, you get to put your own emotions and memories into what you’re playing when you improvise,” like the memory of playing Nintendo 64 with your best friend, or recalling the excitement of unwrapping a Super Nintendo on Christmas morning. “Expanding upon those melodies that we already love,” says Weaver, “that’s really fun.”

The Hard Modes strike a balance between serious jazz and less-serious video game music on February 23 at C’ville Coffee.

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