Monday, April 18, 2011
From the first moment I heard that the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Del McCoury Band would be releasing a collaborative album, all of my music nerd tendencies kicked into overdrive. My enthusiasm stemmed from a few places. First, I am a fan of both bands, and expected an album of compelling music. Second, I am always anxious to see accomplished bluegrass musicians experiment outside their comfort zones. Third, I was excited to see an integrated band playing traditional American music from genres that, frankly, don't always have a lot of racial diversity. This is especially true of bluegrass music, which has traditionally been played by and for a largely white audience. I think this lack of diversity in bluegrass is more the result of historical and geographic phenomenon than it is any exclusionary attitudes, certainly with respect to contemporary bluegrass artists and audiences. However, this is precisely why collaborative efforts like this are so important, to illustrate the deep connections between the music and culture of artists from differing traditions. That said, I assume this album was not conceived of as a sociological experiment or novelty of ethnomusicology. American Legacies is the result of two hugely talented bands coming together in the hopes of making some damn fine music, a goal they certainly met.
My first listen to American Legacies led me to feel that the music was driven more by PHJB than Del and his band. I thought this might be appropriate, given that jazz preceded bluegrass and was one of the building blocks of Bill Monroe's music. In a sense, jazz is an "elder" of bluegrass and, as such, deserved deference. Also, drums and, especially, horns, have little precedence in the history of bluegrass music, so their inclusion leads one to think "jazz" more than bluegrass upon hearing them. After further listens, however, I began to hear a more balanced collaboration between the two band's core formal elements. Perhaps the most interesting intersections come in negotiating the rhythmic fundamentals of each band. Bluegrass is known for a forward leaning drive, constantly propelling the music onward whereas jazz has a syncopation that is often creating a push-pull tension, frequently playing behind the beat, creating a "waiting" anticipation. These are diametrically opposed approaches in some respects, and hearing this negotiation leads to some of the most interesting moments in American Legacies.
Case in point is the spiritual, "I'll Fly Away," which becomes a sort of cultural "call and response" illustrating these differences. The song begins with PHJB playing a very traditional New Orleans version of the song. A bluesy introduction opens the spiritual with sliding vocal glissandi atop piano accompaniment before the full band kicks in with a raucous flurry of competing and diverging horn lines. After a couple of verses, PHJB steps back so that Del and his band can offer their response in the form of three-part harmonies backed by a rhythmic mandolin chop and fiddle runs. Rob McCoury's banjo gets the break after this only to be answered by a clarinet solo which builds to a rendition with all the musicians from both bands playing through several verses together. In my mind, this is the album's "thesis statement" allowing the shared spiritual underpinnings of these genres to coalesce while maintaining each of their individual characteristics. The song seems to celebrate the beauty of difference while also encouraging unity and interconnection.
Perhaps the most unexpected song in the collection is "Banjo Frisco" which feels more like it came from the streets of swinging London in the 1960's than the swamps of New Orleans or the hills of Virginia in any decade. Well, perhaps there is a waft of andouille sausage or fried possum in the air, but the horn arrangements played in unison combined with the driving drum beat and hard-charging banjo seem more appropriate for mini-skirt martinis than backyard barbecues. These wonderfully bizarre compositions are exactly what make experiments like this so worthwhile. That's not to say, however, that some of the more traditional songs aren't equally satisfying.
The album is book-ended by tunes which allow some rollicking playing amidst self-referential celebrations. The album's first track, "The Band's in Town," is a recurring set of down-home, earthy riffs allowing most of the collaborators an opportunity to solo a few bars while being name-dropped by their co-conspirators. The closing track "One More 'Fore I Die" has a similar ethos as it, too, cleverly name-drops each soloist. In both of these tracks, it is an absolute treat to hear competing breaks traded between unlikely partners such as trumpet, banjo, clarinet, mandolin, and piano. This is not just the essence of American music but the essence of what the larger American experiment has become, a collision of disparate cultures rubbing shoulders and mixing ingredients to develop a character that is somehow uniquely recognizable even though its most fundamental element is its wild variety.
This is a paradox of sorts - the unifying characteristic of American art is the diversity of its influences, especially with respect to cultural and ethnic traditions. It is no surprise that the pairing of these forms, jazz and bluegrass, would lead to such a successful project. Each are uniquely American art forms imbued with the character of their national identity. Both art forms share the spirit of American individualism as found in the emphasis of solo breaks and the pioneering spirit as found in the reliance on improvisation. Each art form is heavily influenced by worship music and they both include old church spirituals in large chunks of their respective canons (as illustrated by the aforementioned "I'll Fly Away.") Each form also has at its core the ideas, concerns, and philosophies of impoverished and disenfranchised populations, struggling to carve out a cultural legacy on their own terms with what they happen to have at hand. Lastly, each is a hybrid of European and African musical forms, both providing a living anthropology of this country's history. Regardless of all this socio-cultural navel-gazing, the bottom line is that both of these bands are smoking-hot, and when the two join forces, the result is one hell of a barnburning good time. When all is said is done, that will probably be the most important legacy of American Legacies, as it should be.