It should be no major surprise that artists and fans find plenty of common ground between jazz and bluegrass music, two quintessentially American artforms, and collaborations between artists of both genres, as well as outright fusions of the two, have been frequent over the years. Country artists as far back as Jimmie Rodgers (who invited Louis Armstrong to play on “Blue Yodel #9”) and Bob Wills (by staking a claim in western swing) have dabbled with jazz accompaniments, and, over the course of their careers, legends like Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson have grown increasingly interested in paying tribute to jazz or in joining forces with jazz players, as Nelson did on his 2008 album with Wynton Marsalis, Two Men With the Blues.
Among country subgenres, though, bluegrass, with its emphasis on improvisational solos, is an even more kindred spirit to jazz, and progressive bluegrass has enjoyed a popularity of late that has been galvanized by groups that accentuate freeform jamming. Banjo freak of nature Bela Fleck, for instance, may have cut his teeth on Earl Scruggs records, but he’s long been stocked in the jazz sections of record stores for with his Flecktones trio’s left-field adventures in jazz fusion.
Yet when the Preservation Jazz Hall Band, stalwarts of New Orleans jazz traditions, announced its collaboration with the Del McCoury Band, it still came as a surprise. Del McCoury is, after all, the realest of the real bluegrass pickers and singers, a 72-year-old traditionalist and Bill Monroe band veteran who embodies the high-lonesome singing and picking of classic bluegrass. Pairing Del and his band with the Preservation Jazz Hall Band — a union forged when Del contributed to last year’s Preservation, a benefit album by the PHJB to benefit the Hall’s music outreach program — for a full-blown album and tour struck some as an interesting, if perhaps discordant, idea.
Fans of the Del McCoury Band, however, had little doubt that the band could pull it off. Del’s band, featuring his sons Ronnie and Robbie on mandolin and banjo, respectively, alongside fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Alan Bartram, is one of bluegrass’s most versatile groups. Despite all of McCourys’ traditionalism — the suits, the single mic, the high-lonesome harmonies — the band has, especially over the last decade, become a favorite among the jamgrass community, thanks to the band’s relentless touring, impeccable instrumental flash, and willingness to stretch beyond the old-fashioned confines of the form. To this day, Del expresses surprise at the hippie kids who shuffle and twirl during Del’s sets, but the jam crowd has permanently embraced Del as one of their own, no matter how much hairspray he uses.
Sure enough, American Legacies wastes no time proving how well the pairing works. Not only do the bands’ rich investments in traditional forms fit into a shared sensibility and musical lock-step, but the remarkable instrumental versatility of the musicians in both bands allows for seamless, sometimes thrilling, crossovers.
From the beginning, the bands announce that American Legacies is meant to be a true marriage. The opener, “The Band’s in Town”, a calling card number written by Preservation Jazz Hall Band tubist Ben Jaffe, establishes the when-the-saints-go-marching-to-Kentucky blueprint for the album, giving ample room for the boys in each group to lay down solos and thereby demonstrate the collaborative nature of the proceedings, even if the vocal refrain (“The Pres Hall Band’s in town/we’ve come to play”) eventually wears out its welcome.
Despite the obvious attempts at evenly parceling out airtime, the Jazz Hall Band can’t help but dominate at times, and when the band cuts loose, the instrumentalists — including Freddie Lonzo on trombone, Mark Braud on trumpet, Charlie Gabriel on clarinet — rip it up with exuberant Dixieland flair, all blowing at the same time in full-bore French Quarter revelry. Still, even with the sheer punch and volume of the Jazz Hall Band’s brass, the McCourys’ string-band instruments work mighty hard to compete, and it’s a tribute to Del’s band that they do the lion’s share of stretching as stylists to forge a genuine mix-and-mingle union.
It helps that most of these tunes stick to 12-bar structures in the classic New Orleans style, so these players can hold forth with blues-like phrasings that fit nicely into either jazz or country repertoires.
“One Has My Name” is a typical offering, an old Eddie Dean tune to which Del lends his signature tenor over a shuffling ballad with everyone taking turns — sax then piano (Rickie Monie, terrific) then mandolin then fiddle. Later, Jazz Hall singer Clint Maedgen trades vocals with Del on the jump number “Shoestop Blues”; the instrumentalists get into a real do-si-do, trading off quickly, the banjo banging around in an attempt to elbow the clarinet out of the way.
There is no straight, fast bluegrass on the album, but Del sounds at home on “You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry”, a song that both Ernest Tubb and Tennessee Ernie Ford recorded and on which the Pres Hall Band assumes a subtle background role. Not so on “The Sugar Blues”, which features Braud’s screaming wah-wah trumpet bawling all over the place in the classic Clyde McCoy style.
“Banjo Frisco” might be American Legacies’ best attempt at a real fusion between the two bands’ styles; it’s an instrumental that features the brass instruments on a riff clipped from ‘70s sitcoms, then moves into a progression over which the soloists launch into some of the best breaks on the record, particularly Braud’s trumpet ride and Ronnie McCoury’s wildcat mandolin solo. Here, these guys very much sound like a single band indeed — like Herb Albert hosting a shag dance at the Ryman Auditorium.
Gabriel is the star of “A Good Gal”, providing playful, warm Satchmo-esque lead vocals and a delightful clarinet solo. Del’s band lends nice embellishments, the fiddle floating drowsy lines on top of the piano figures. An inclusion of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” on this set seems a forgone conclusion — bumpkin on the bayou — and Del’s the man to recreate Hank’s hillbilly whine, although he never settles all that comfortably into the Dixieland rumba arrangement created by Jaffe’s tuba and Robbie McCoury’s percussive banjo strumming.
“I’ll Fly Away” is a blast, starting out with Maedgen’s rafter-raising first verse, then sliding into a Big Easy whirlwind of brass boogie-woogie, then ceding to an unadorned bluegrass version as the McCourys gather around the mic to show off some four-part harmony. Once the PJHB takes back over, the party busts loose in earnest for a show-stopping final minute so fun that the song feels misplaced at mid-set since it’s such a hard peak to follow.
American Legacies, though, is full of peak moments, and it’s the kind of collaboration that lifts both bands collectively. In honoring their respective legacies, these groups manage to pay meaningful tribute to each other and, from the sound of things, have a hell of a good time. You will, too.