Adding music to ‘Soul’

Jazz music is taking center stage in Disney’s latest release, “Soul,” which premiered on Dec. 25, 2020.

As the movie premiere drew near, Visiting Director of Jazz Studies John Petrucelli got an unexpected (but very exciting) phone call requesting that he compose an original track inspired by the film’s themes and setting, of which Petrucelli has quite the intimate knowledge.

“I got a phone call from Nick Tarnowski at Allied Media who represents Disney/Pixar, and specifically helps launch new productions,” Petrucelli explained. The company was in the process of promoting “Soul,” a Pixar animated film featuring the contemporary jazz community in New York.

“Nick had asked me if it would be possible to send me some shots of some of the key or pivotal scenes in the movie, and have me write something inspired by the general mood or ambiance of the film from my perspective as a contemporary jazz musician,” Petrucelli said. “They wanted it in five days, to go out the day before the movie goes out. I decided it was time to put out a call to some of my current and former students here at the University of Utah.”

Luckily, it wasn’t the first time he had pulled such a group together.

He had assembled a band during the pandemic, a jazz quintet featuring a number of current and former students from the University of Utah School of Music. “Originally we had performed a tribute to Dave Brubeck Concert for Excellence in the community here locally, which really ballooned. We reached over 70,000 people on that virtual livestream. I felt like they were ready, and we went to the studio and recorded this really, I think, cool composition I wrote called ‘Coming Home,’ which is inspired by the journey back to our main character’s neighborhood in New York,” he said.

“They wanted it in five days, to go out the day before the movie goes out. I decided it was time to put out a call to some of my current and former students here at the University of Utah,” he said.

Our U musicians take the chance to shine. “Tony Elison, who is a recent graduate on piano; and Chris Petty, one of our master’s graduate students; and I all solo in brief dialogues. So no one is taking a full-length improvisation, but it is more conversational in an interlude moment of the composition,” Petrucelli said.

The movie focuses on a talented pianist and educator who is stuck in certain ways. “He has this passion and love for performing jazz music and gets a remarkable opportunity to perform at what is essentially the Village Vanguard—although it is not referred to that way in the film—it’s one of the storied jazz clubs in New York and, really, the world. After auditioning and getting the gig, he falls through a manhole and has to find his way home. Without spoiling it, it is this really emotional story about trying to get back to where he came from and finding some friendships along the way.”

For Petrucelli, the whole ambiance of the film is deeply familiar.

“New York is really where I came of age as a jazz musician. It’s one of the most storied cities in terms of the evolution and development of jazz. And to start performing in New York when I was 12 or 13 years old was daunting in some ways, but it pushed me, and everyone who came up with me during that time, to be serious and make strides in pursuing my individual artistry.”

What a wonderful way to come full circle.