A look into Utah's musical connection to Disney Pixar's 'Soul'

A still shot from Disney/Pixar's "Soul."


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SALT LAKE CITY — If you watch Disney Pixar's new movie "Soul," which follows the story of a Black jazz musician and teacher, you will hear Snow College director of Jazz Studies Phil Kuehn on the bass.

"It was really cool to watch this with my kids, and have them look for my name at the end and everything and hearing the bass and saying,'Oh that's daddy,'" Kuehn said, who is named as a featured jazz musician in the film's end credits.

Kuehn got involved with the project after his longtime friend and lead composer of the film's score Jon Batiste recruited him through Pixar. The pair go way back and actually met as seniors in high school when they were accepted into the Grammy Jazz Ensembles. From there, they went on to be roommates as they attended Juilliard School of Music in New York and later performed together in Batiste's band Stay Human.

Kuen recorded the music for the movie's soundtrack in September 2019 while video cameras were trained on him and the other musicians.

"The cameras were on us because they wanted to match the animation with our hands to get it accurate with what we were actually playing, which I thought was really cool," Kuehn explained.

That attention to detail didn't go unnoticed by musicians worldwide, including University of Utah visiting director of jazz John Petrucelli.

"For musicians watching movies, I think it can always be a little (like) nails on the chalkboard to watch nonmusicians like pretend to play instruments," he said. But in "Soul," that wasn't the case.

"It's I think probably the most accurate representation of what music looks like in a film that I've ever seen," he said. "I think probably ever. Just because of the specificity that they use to replicate, you know, the physical gestures that is happening when you're hearing the music."

Petrucelli worked with Kuehn and some University of Utah music students to create an original composition inspired by the movie called "Coming Home." While the song isn't featured in the movie itself, the piece was commissioned by Pixar and was used to help promote the new film.

The song was inspired by the "story arc of our protagonist's journey to try and arrive back into his community and neighborhood in New York," Petrucelli said.

Like Kuehn, Petrucelli also spent time performing jazz in New York, which is where the movie is set.

"In terms of the movie itself, I think it's really accurate," Petrucelli said. "I've spent a long time, I mean most all of my adult life and most of my childhood was spent in jazz clubs, performing professionally. I know for a lot of other musicians and colleagues who have checked it out, I think that people felt like what we do was really well represented."

Kuehn and Petrucelli are both from the east coast but have since moved out west to teach and share their love of jazz in Utah. And like Joe, the main character of "Soul," they love playing as much as they love teaching.

"Sometimes people think that teachers just kind of have like an easy cushy job. And they don't really want to play much but I still want to play," Kuehn said. "I love performing."

When teachers are actively involved in their craft and keep performing, Kuehn said, it can make them better educators.

"I think there's a lot of a lot of good influence that you can have over younger musicians and just culturally; it's a huge responsibility,"

Kuehn, who's been playing jazz music since he was 12, said given the music's rich cultural history and given racial injustices still faced by minorities in America today, releasing a movie celebrating Black Americans and jazz is very important.

"There's a lot of systemic racism and a lot of racial injustice in the world today. I think jazz is as relevant as it was back then," he said.

"It's an honor to play jazz and to teach jazz. And every day I'm appreciating it more and more for just the spirit of jazz and that welcoming spirit is what I've experienced in my lifetime, and so many musicians have sacrificed so much for musicians today to be able to do what they do."

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Lauren Bennett is a reporter with KSL.com who covers Utah’s religious community and the growing tech sector in the Beehive State.


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