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The Jerry Douglas Band: What If
by George Graham
(Rounder Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/16/2017)
It has been over 35 years since the New Acoustic scene made its debut with a cadre of then-young acoustic pickers playing bluegrass instruments but bringing with them a background of rock, jazz and even world music. David Grisman can be credited with helping to launch what would be become a prolific scene during the 1980s. That first generation of the new acoustic innovators also included guitarist Tony Rice, multi-instrumentalist Sam Bush, banjo men Bela Fleck and Tony Trischka and Dobro man Jerry Douglas. Most have remained active releasing new recordings periodically. Bela Fleck has had perhaps the most eclectic output in terms of spanning styles. But in terms of sheer number of recordings on which he has appeared, perhaps the busiest guy of the lot is Jerry Douglas, who has just released a new and suitably eclectic album called What If.
A native of Kentucky, Douglas made his recording debut under his own name in 1979. Since then, he has appeared on close to 2000 albums as a sideman, the most in-demand Dobro player in Nashville. He has also been a member of Alison Krauss and Union Station for more than a decade, and has also been a member of the more traditional bluegrass band the Earls of Leicester. Along the way, he has won 14 Grammy Awards for his work. Douglas’ solo albums have given him a chance to satisfy his musical restlessness. Douglas said that as a teen when he was starting to make a name for himself on the Dobro, he heard Chick Corea and Weather Report for the first time, so the new album What If goes back to that initial jazz influence and gets about as jazzy as Douglas has been on his own records. The Jerry Douglas Band is a distinctive ensemble that mixes bluegrass instrumentation with jazz elements like a pair of horns and an electric guitar. The drummer is from New Orleans and adds some New Orleans grooves, but he also can get into some country rhythms. Douglas is not the first to add a horn section to new acoustic style music. The second incarnation of Bela Fleck’s Flecktones featured a sax, and albums by Bill Evans the saxophonist and Bill Evans the banjo player both featured a mixture of horns with an instrument otherwise associated with bluegrass.
Douglas’ band on this album includes people from various background, including straight jazz, jam band, and academe. Drummer Doug Belote has played with notable New Orleans musicians including Delfayo Marsalis, Henry Butler and the late Allen Toussaint. Saxophonist Jamel Mitchell plays with the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra as well as Larry Carlton. Trumpeter Vance Thompson is the director of the Knoxville jazz orchestra. Guitarist Mike Seal has performed with saxophonist Jeff Coffin formerly of the Flecktones, fiddle player Christian Sedelmyer works frequently as a studio and touring musician with artists including Emmylou Harris, Tim O’Brien and the Indigo Girls; and bassist Daniel Kimbro comes from an academic background at the University of Tennessee.
The material on the album is mostly original and mostly instrumental, though Douglas does do vocals on two of the covers. The sound is fairly wide-ranging, with some of the pieces being pretty much straight jazz with a sequence of instrumental solos, and others run from the contemplative to rock & roll.
Opening is one of the jazzier pieces, an instrumental called Cavebop, which Douglas said was inspired by a dream he had featuring Charlie Parker and Fred Flintstone. <<>>
More in the New Acoustic style is a piece written by the bassist Edgar Meyer called Unfolding. Douglas and Meyer were on the influential all-star New Acoustic album Strength In Numbers back in 1989. The horns ad an interesting sonic approach. <<>>
Drummer Doug Belote’s New Orleans background is apparent on one of the album’s vocal cover tracks. In this case, it’s a Tom Waits song 2:19. Douglas takes a somewhat whimsical approach to the vocals. It’s an interesting choice for the album, but it works out well. <<>>
On the other hand taking a somewhat atmospheric approach is the title piece What If. It’s a nice track all around, in both the composing and the performance and arrangement. <<>>
Another of the vocal cover tunes is the Billy Roberts classic made famous by Jimi Hendrix Hey Joe. The group gives it a kind of upbeat Nashville style spin. Jerry Douglas’ Dobro work is prominent. <<>>
One of the more interesting tracks is Butcher Boy an old traditional folk song that Douglas and company perform in a quirky meter, with a new original chorus section written by Douglas. <<>>
One of the album’s contemplative-sounding instrumentals is a piece called Go Ahead and Leave, in which Douglas’ Dobro is at its most plaintive. <<>>
The band allows itself to go all Nashville on an original piece called Hot Country 84.5. Despite the title, the group takes piece at an easy-going tempo that ends the album on a kind of happy note. <<>>
Jerry Douglas, arguably the world’s leading contemporary exponent of the Dobro and other resonator guitars, on his new album What If, has created an eclectic but enjoyable recording which can find audiences among fans of the New Acoustic Scene, the jam band world, open-minded jazz fans and even some country aficionados. The sound is innovative, but with familiar elements of the aforementioned styles. The playing is first class, with Douglas doing for the Dobro what Bela Flack has done with the banjo, taking his instrument out of its typical stylistic environment. The album has a good collection of material, most of it original, but with creativity applied to the cover tunes. Although Douglas with his Dobro is the leader of the group, the other members of the band are given as many solo feature opportunities as Douglas himself takes.
Our grade for audio quality is an “A.” The sound is clean and open. There are virtually no significant studio effects, in fact the album is mostly devoid of reverberation, giving it an intimate sound. The dynamic range is better than average, the recording generally maintains the ebb and flow of the performance’s changes in volume.
Ubiquitous Dobro man Jerry Douglas has been releasing a series of worthwhile albums for 28 years. This new one, What If, was named after the question, “What if someone who played the Dobro formed a band with a horn section.” I think its one of his best yet.
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