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Thirty years later, Texas music critic hears his waltz on 'Better Call Saul'

Bob Odenkirk plays the title character, a would-be sleazeball lawyer in the AMC series, "Better Caul Saul"
Bob Odenkirk plays the title character, a would-be sleazeball lawyer in the AMC series, "Better Caul Saul"

Ted Gioia is better known for his books, but a tune he composed decades ago as a musician found new life on the popular TV drama.

Before he became a leading music historian, Texas resident Ted Gioia (pronounced JOY-ah) was a young jazz musician. Out of the blue, an early recording of his was just featured on TV's hottest drama, AMC's Better Call Saul.

In Monday's episode of Saul, ruthless meth kingpin Gus Fring — played by Giancarlo Esposito — escapes getting killed by a rival cartel. He ducks into a restaurant, and sitting there — in a change of mood — he listens to the pianist in the bar playing a sweet, little waltz.

Thirty-six years ago, Ted Gioia recorded that solo, "A Sunday Waltz," for his first album, The End of the Open Road. Since then, Gioia has established himself as a major figure in jazz criticism and music history, writing such landmark books as The Jazz Standards and Music: A Subversive History.

So these days, Gioia isn't likely to jump back into music gigs — not on the basis of one full minute of airtime.

"I'm treating this as a one-time thing that will never be repeated in the history of the universe," Gioia says from his home in Austin. [He and his wife moved there from Plano last year]. "But it gives someone like me a glimpse of the power of the larger media. Which just operates on a level someone like me never experiences."

Ted Gioia, jazz critic and composer
Ted Gioia
Ted Gioia, jazz critic and composer, author of "The Jazz Standards" and "Music: A Subversive History"

In The Honest Broker, where he writes these days on Substack, Gioia explains that he didn't know about the possible appearance of his music on Saul until last week. Even then, he wasn't certain if it was a done deal or how much — a snippet? — would actually get aired. He's been disappointed before, getting left on the cutting room floor at the last minute.

All the negotiations, he says, were handled through a third party, Mia Apatow, who's in charge of licensing the extensive music catalog his recordings now belong to.

Gioia recorded "A Sunday Waltz" in the remaining hour of studio time he had booked with his jazz trio in 1986. He used the time to record "moody, nostalgic" piano pieces that, he says, didn't fit the full trio because they were "more ruminative, even cinematic."

"They were sort of like jazz, but they weren't really jazz," he says.

The result, he admits, evokes the sweet, Charlie Brown soundtracks of Vince Guaraldi.

"People tell me, 'That sounds like Vince Guaraldi.' And I would say, 'I can only dream of getting a fraction of his record sales. But he definitely reaches people with his music. So what higher thing can you aspire to?"

Other Texans on Better Call Saul have included Alfonso Aguirre, who appeared as a maitre'd, and Tina Parker, co-artistic director of Kitchen Dog Theater. She's played Saul's secretary Francesca since the original series that introduced their characters, Breaking Bad.

Jerome Weeks is the Art&Seek producer-reporter for KERA. A professional critic for more than two decades, he was the book columnist for The Dallas Morning News for ten years and the paper’s theater critic for ten years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines.