A virtuoso in the truest sense of the word, no one has ever played the dobro quite like Jerry Douglas. Long revered as a sideman and in-demand session player (he has over 2,000 credits and counting to his name), his approach to the instrument has come to largely define its modern vocabulary. Much in the same way Béla Fleck helped redefine the banjo, Douglas’ approach forgoes any sort of stylistic parameters in favor of creating a musical fusion of all his disparate interests and influences. From traditional bluegrass to jazz to rock to blues and nearly all points in between, Douglas has put his spin on seemingly each and every style one could imagine in the nearly 40 years since his monumental debut album, Fluxology.
With such a storied career having already been well-cemented, Douglas could easily be forgiven for resting on his laurels. Even now he continues to push both himself and those with whom he plays to new and exciting levels of instrumental virtuosity. It’s a testament to his steadfast work ethic and a hard-earned reputation as one of Nashville’s greatest, not only on the dobro but also lap steel and guitar that he remains so invested in his art, both under his own name and with others.
For his latest outing as session leader, What If, Douglas has recruited his three-year-old septet of fellow virtuosos—the Jerry Douglas Band—to revisit tracks from his recording past in new and different ways, while allowing each player’s individual instrumental prowess shine. Bassist Daniel Kimbro tears into Edgar Meyer’s “Unfolding”, a tune Douglas has already recorded at least three times to date, with a ferocious solo, while saxophonist Jamel Mitchell shows off his driving post-bop chops throughout. It’s a thrilling read made all the more so by the level of playing Douglas manages to elicit from those around him.
Yet despite the clear virtuosity on display, it’s never once off-putting or alienating to the listener. Instead, Douglas and company manage a certain musical universality that makes even the most intricately complex of musical ideas sound welcoming. Of course, it helps to throw in a handful of recognizable covers, chiefly their rollicking rendition of “Hey Joe”. Propelled by Doug Belote’s lightning-fast country shuffle and Kimbro’s wicked rockabilly slap, it serves as an excellent showcase for each instrumentalist, Douglas most of all as he magnificently surpasses anything Jimi Hendrix could’ve ever conceived during his solo.
As a vocalist, he is noticeably lacking but game to take on any and all comers. Douglas does his best late-night blues growl on Tom Waits’ “2:19”, a track left steaming and smoldering from guitarist Mike Seal’s wicked leads. The song’s sauntering, cocksure groove is the perfect backdrop for the group’s laid back, fiery blues, backing gospel choir and all. Meanwhile, the melancholic title track allows for some gorgeously introspective playing from all involved, but particularly Douglas and fiddler Christian Sedelmyer whose cascading, classically-informed Glassian lines tumble off one another in a rich harmonic embrace.
It’s this multifaceted approach that makes the music on What If so compelling; there’s always something more going on just below the surface, something equally virtuosic but always in service of the performance. This type of quiet confidence eschews even the slightest whiff of pretension or high-minded superiority, ensuring that even the densest passages of a tune like the counter-rhythmic “Battle Stick” remain engaging. Only the best of the best manage to make it look this effortless and The Jerry Douglas Band is made up of just that.
Of course, it’s not all blazing-fast solos and superhuman feats of musical dexterity. “Go Ahead and Leave” features Douglas on a hauntingly gorgeous melody that shows off his masterful, subtle melodic phrasing, taking the relatively simple line to the next level emotionally. It’s a master class in a less-is-more approach to soloing and melodic interpretation that further supports the notion that virtuosity does not exist solely in fiery fretwork, but also in musical sensitivity and a willingness to let a piece breathe.
After roaming all over the stylistic map on the preceding ten tracks, album closer “Hot Country 84.5” sees the group returning to their C&W roots, incorporating elements of Western Swing and straight-ahead country that show them to be some of the finest Nashville has to offer. In all, What If is not only a superb instrumental showcase, it’s an endlessly enjoyable listen that never once flaunts its virtuosity nor underestimates the listener by pandering. Instead, it’s yet another solid installment in the long line of work Jerry Douglas has produced over the last few decades. What If is a treat through and through.
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