Scanning the Countryside: Country—and All That Jazz
There have always been some who see country music and jazz as opposite ends of the American music spectrum—one down home, emotionally straightforward and inclined towards the well-understood and safe; the other urban, sophisticated, even intellectual, and born to go off on unfettered, exploratory tangents. You could, of course, hear that opposition expressed by fans of either sort of music to describe why they’ll have nothing to do with the other. The often beautiful truth, though, is that these two largely domestic products have been bumping into each other and dating seriously, if not going steady, ever since both became more defined commercial styles in the 1920s.
From the jazz band backing on a fair number of Jimmie Rodgers records, and his famed duet with Louis Armstrong through the country breakdown/jazz intersection in Western Swing in the thirties in the hands of Bob Wills and Milton Brown and Bob Dunn, the jazz ties in improvisation and putting the sounds first in bluegrass in the forties, the turn to more complex stringed instrument stylings in the hands of Easterners like Merle Travis, Chet Atkins and Jethro Burns into the fifties, and (in one of Nashville’s worst kept secrets) the many top-line country instrumentalists who’ve played jazz gigs by night ever since, there have been very substantial, ongoing country-jazz connections and conversations. The obvious-enough jazz vocal and guitar leanings of a Willie Nelson were underscored in his 2008 collaboration with Wynton Marsalis; Merle Haggard accented his own long-standing jazz leanings in his 2004 album Unforgettable—and that “Night Life” Ray Price has been singing about for decades is a notably jazzy one.
I mention all of this because this year is shaping up as another prime time for some very nicely varied country/jazz encounters. An excellent case in point is the just released Countrypolitan Duets CD from the skilled, smart, clean Nashville jazz vocalist Anna Wilson and a few of her “friends,” who happen to include Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum, Rascal Flatts and Billy Dean, as well as such veteran country hands as the previously-mentioned Mr. Price, steel guitar great Lloyd Green, Kenny Rogers, and the inimitable Connie Smith. These are smooth, fluid, unmistakably jazz-based takes, sometimes with a full, hot horn section, alternately stinging and moody guitar, pace-setting piano, and choral group back-up, on country standards from “You Don’t Know Me” and “Walkin’ After Midnight” to “Cherokee Maiden” and “For the Good Times.”
I promise you that Connie and Anna’s swinging turn on Ms. Smith’s 1972 hit “Just For What I Am” will grab you, take you to school on what the jazz touch can bring to a country tune and sentiment, and remind you all over again what an extraordinary on-point, vocalist Ms. Smith has always been, with immaculate diction and control that transcends genre. (For all of her predilection for traditional country, Connie’s also expressed her admiration for such singers as Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson.)
Anna Wilson was also among the songwriters represented on the 2007 jazz-centric release from Suzy Bogguss, Sweet Danger. One of the most arresting things about that collection is the way she was able to blend jazz vocal tone and mood with country storytelling you can still follow, in such cuts as “No Good Way to Go” (written by the talented Guy Clark partner Verlon Thompson) and “It’s Not Gonna Happen Today.” It used to amaze and puzzle hipster friends of the Be-Bop jazz saxophone icon Charlie Parker that he would listen to country radio when out on the road, and he famously explained to them “It’s the stories, man. Listen to the stories.” Yet the jazz equivalent of the flow of a story is most often the flow of rhythms and tones and chord changes, not plot—so it’s much to Suzy’s credit that country and jazz strengths come together there.
Jazz and country share some common history, in that both have sometimes buried ties to very old school American show business, in the music of the minstrel shows and vaudeville, of Tin Pan Alley composers and sentimental pop parlor songs. Those connections will be on display, marvelously so, in the album-length collaboration coming in mid-April from the Del McCoury Band and the national treasure Preservation Hall Jazz Band, American Legacies. It’s a revelation to hear the similarities in manner and approach to the phrasing and vocal flavor of Del himself (always a declared fan of the blues) and PRJB lead singer and sax man Clint Maedgen on such tunes as “Jambalaya,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Sugar Blues” and “One Has My Name,” all given the traditional New Orleans jazz treatment. The instrumental chops of the whole McCoury gang throughout the disc will remind you that mandolin, banjo, guitar and fiddle were all jazz instruments right along with the brass before the recording industry generally separated them into rural and urban musical divisions. Here they are again, and it’s a blast.
Coming in March is a quite different jazz/country variation, the much-anticipated Buddy Miller-led guitar hero collaboration, Majestic Silver Strings, with, Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz, all modern guitar stylists who’ve had hands in country (or Americana) camps and jazzier ones as well, and vocalists to match, including Lee Ann Womack, Emmylou Harris, Patty Grififn and Julie Miller. Previewed in a Nashville show last year (and at the Country Hall of Fame), this album will offer often laid-back turns on country standards, including “Why Baby Why,” “Cattle Call” and “Dang Me.”
That tradition of bringing some post-twang, multi-chord complexity to country guitar is getting some additional, and fine attention right now. Jazz guitar legend Bucky Pizzarelli has a second of two recent salutes to Western Swing, cowboys and country music in general out now, Back in the Saddle Again (by “Buck” Pizzarelli). The personable and very knowledgeable David Anderson, who greets and serenades virtually everyone who visits the Country Music Hall of Fame rotunda with guitar requests (and continues that tradition of playing Nashville jazz clubs nights) is letting loose a new collection Countrypolitan (don’t let the familiar title confuse here) featuring atmospheric, expertly picked electric guitar collaborations on sometimes jazzy, yet clearly country, instrumentals with Nashville A-Team legend and Country Hall of Famer Harold Bradley. And say, if you want to hear another classic country guitar A-Teamer in his lesser known jazz mode, check out the sides uncovered by Hank Garland, who’d nearly secretly take off for New York to jam with Charlie Parker and other be-boppers.
If after all of this new evidence, you can still find country and jazz the unconnected outpourings of different planets, you just haven’t been paying sufficient attention, cats!
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