Jazz and Country Fusion: The Searchers

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The Haden family (clockwise from top): Josh Haden, Ruth Cameron Haden, Petra Haden, Tanya Haden Black, Charlie Haden, Rachel Haden
By Jim McGuire
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Wynton Marsalis with Willie Nelson
By Danny Clinch
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Jenny Scheinman
By Michael Wilson

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When Sonny Rollins released his Way Out West album in 1957, the cover featured the tall tenor saxophonist standing out in the desert between a bleached cow skull and a multi-armed cactus. In the William Claxton photo, Rollins cradled his horn like a six gun, planted his fist by his holster and peered out slyly from beneath a big gray cowboy hat. The cowboy theme carried over into the music as the trio of Rollins, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne played “I’m an Old Cowhand,” “Wagon Wheels” and the leader’s title tune.

It was an important record for several reasons. For one, the piano-less format allowed Rollins the harmonic freedom to break with bebop orthodoxy and to follow his melodic inspiration wherever it led. For another, it challenged the assumption that only blues, ballads and show tunes were the proper materials for jazz improvisation. The album proved that country music, even ersatz country music like Johnny Mercer’s “I’m an Old Cowhand,” could inspire great jazz performances.

Rollins wasn’t the first to point this out. After all, in 1930 Louis Armstrong had played trumpet on “Blue Yodel No. 9” by the “Father of Country Music,” Jimmie Rodgers. Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys had recorded “Basin Street Blues,” one of Armstrong’s signature tunes, in 1946. But Rollins was one of the first jazz musicians to embrace country music so emphatically.

It has taken a long time, but country music is now winning grudging acceptance from the jazz world. One of 2008’s best-selling jazz releases was the Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson collaboration, Two Men With the Blues (Blue Note). This country-jazz hybrid was new territory for Marsalis, but Nelson has been singing and picking jazz standards all his life and even recorded a jazz-guitar record, The Gypsy, with Jackie King in 2001.

Another key release last year was Charlie Haden’s Rambling Boy (Decca), a collection of old country songs he sang as a young boy in the Haden Family. Before he moved to Los Angeles and joined the Ornette Coleman Quartet, Haden sang with his parents and siblings on the radio in Iowa and Missouri. Haden first hinted at those origins on his 1997 duo album with Pat Metheny, Beyond the Missouri Sky. Now Haden revisits the actual songs of the Haden Family with help from his kids, Metheny, Elvis Costello and such country stars as Rosanne Cash, Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs.

Jenny Scheinman, the jazz violinist who has recorded with Bill Frisell, Norah Jones and John Zorn, released two KOCH label albums in 2008. Crossing the Field is an instrumental jazz record with Frisell and Jason Moran, but Jenny Scheinman is a vocal project, featuring country and folk songs recorded with fellow members of Frisell’s band.

Frisell has been a leader of this movement ever since he recorded his Nashville album in that city in the mid-1990s with Dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas and current and former members of Alison Krauss’ band. Since then Frisell has recorded songs by John Hiatt, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan and A.P. Carter with the help of fiddle, banjo, Dobro and pedal steel guitar.

And ever since Cassandra Wilson included both Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” and Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” on her 1996 New Moon Daughter album, she has provided a country-jazz model that vocalists from Norah Jones to Lizz Wright have imitated.

This is a new kind of fusion music, a merging of jazz not with rock or funk but with country. It’s a new kind of alt-country, an alternative that leans toward jazz harmonies rather than rock rhythms. There’s something in the air, and it proves how prescient Rollins was.

“Country music wasn’t on the jukeboxes in my neighborhood, let me put it that way,” Rollins says of his childhood on Harlem’s Sugar Hill. “Maybe other people looked down on it, but I’m a big music guy. I like music; it doesn’t matter what kind. I heard a lot of those country-guitar pickers back in the ’30s. On the radio, we used to listen to the Grand Ole Opry—Roy Acuff, Bob Nolan and his Sons of the Pioneers. We’d go see the Westerns in the neighborhood movie theaters. Buck Jones was my favorite, but I knew them all—Hoot Gibson, Tom Mix and Tim McCoy. It was a complete escape from the pavement to see those guys riding their horses through the desert.

“When I made my first trip to California in 1957, it was so different from New York that it brought back all those memories. Les Koenig of Contemporary Records offered me a record date, and I figured since it was the first time I’d been out West, I’d do a concept album. So I picked some tunes that had a Wild West theme, and then I got the cowboy hat, the gun and holster and had the cover shot out in the Mojave Desert. It was my idea, the whole thing.”

Rollins hasn’t made a regular habit of recording country tunes, but he does pull one out every so often. He recorded Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again” for his 1982 No Problem album and Pee Wee King’s “Tennessee Waltz” on his 1989 Falling in Love With Jazz album. More recently, Rollins’ live shows have included Hank Williams’ “Half as Much.” The saxophonist, who has also thrust calypso tunes into the jazz repertoire, is adamant that jazz is not a repertoire but rather a process that can be used with all kinds of music.

“The process can be applied to anything—country songs, arias, anything,” he argues vigorously. “This is what makes jazz the greatest music in the world. It’s a force of nature; it has no boundaries. You can jazz anything up; you can improvise on anything. If a song happens to strike me in a certain way, I’ll use it, even if other people don’t think of it as a jazz tune.”

Rollins suddenly breaks into song in his raspy Harlem accent, crooning, “If you loved me half as much as I love you.” He adds, “When I heard that Hank Williams song, I could hear myself improvising on the theme in my head. It comes to me as a whole: the chords, the melody, the harmony, the variations. We never know why we like certain motifs, certain chord progressions, certain melodies. Music is mysterious; it’s supposed to be.”

It’s hard to underestimate the implications of this insight. Because jazz was largely created by urban African-Americans in the ’20s and ’30s, the genre became associated with the blues, hymns, ballads and Tin Pan Alley tunes familiar to those musicians in those times. It’s easy to draw the conclusion that jazz is inextricably bound up with that repertoire, that you can’t have one without the other. That’s the attitude in many quarters, especially around Columbus Circle in Manhattan.

But what if the traditional jazz repertoire is simply an accident of history, a product of where and when the first jazz musicians emerged? Perhaps country songs would have played a larger role in jazz if more jazz musicians had been from farms and small towns.

“Most jazz musicians I know were born in large cities: New York, L.A., Chicago, Detroit,” Haden points out. “I don’t know many jazz musicians who were born in rural areas or who were raised in country music the way I was. When you’ve got these big-city guys like Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington and George Gershwin writing these great songs, big-city musicians are going to use them for improvising. But at the same time you’ve got these guys in the countryside who brought all this great music over from Scotland, Ireland and England and turned it into folk and country music. Those songs can be just as valuable for improvising.”

Rollins, Haden and their fellow fusioneers take the approach that jazz is primarily a process, not a repertoire. Almost any piece of music can be given an elastic syncopation, substitute chords and theme-and-variation improvisation. Some tunes may work better than others, but Rollins has demonstrated that a successful tune might as easily be a calypso as a show tune, a Hank Williams song as readily as a George Gershwin number.

“Jazz can use any source material,” argues Scheinman. “Jazz is an approach, and you can start with any melody and make it work for improvisers. The tune is just the conversation topic, and you can take the topic anywhere you want.”

“That’s what’s so amazing about jazz,” Frisell agrees. “That’s why it’s such a perfect world to be in. I don’t think there are any rules as far as what you use as source material. It’s more about having the opportunity to take what you know, to draw from your experience, and do whatever you want with it. All my heroes—Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk—took the music that was around them, the music that they liked, and transformed it through their own eyes.”

If this is true, if jazz is a process that can be worked on any ingredients, what are the advantages of turning to country music for raw materials? Well, the genre is full of gorgeous melodies, aching emotions and rural textures that have been largely untouched by the jazz world. While blues, ballads and show tunes have been worked to exhaustion, country music represents a largely unplowed field. Here is a wealth of material just waiting to be alchemized into jazz, if only musicians and audiences can overcome their prejudices.

“People would tell Sonny, ‘Oh, you can’t use that tune,’” Frisell says, “like they thought he was joking when he played ‘Surrey With the Fringe on Top,’ or ‘I’m an Old Cowhand.’ But he would transform them into something incredible. That gave me the courage to follow my interests wherever they led.”

Frisell’s interests have led him in many directions: toward noisy avant-garde collaborations with Vernon Reid and John Zorn; atmospheric, electronica-tinged music with his new group Floratone, and straight-ahead postbop sessions with Elvin Jones and Ron Carter. One of his most fruitful pursuits, however, has been his experiments in mixing country and jazz. Because Frisell is from Colorado, people assume he grew up with country music, but in fact he spent his adolescence playing in Denver funk bands, an experience not so different from Wynton Marsalis’ in New Orleans.

“In the late ’60s,” he explains, “I became aware of jazz right at that moment it disappeared off the Ken Burns radar. Almost as soon as I began to find out about jazz, I shut the door on everything else. I was a total jazz snob; I said everything else was garbage. I met Jim Hall and got a guitar just like Jim Hall’s guitar.

“That went on for a few years and then something snapped. I realized I wasn’t being honest when I shut off all the music that had made me pick up the guitar in the first place. It just didn’t feel right to artificially put the music in this little bubble that wasn’t part of what was going on at the time. That’s a real common thing to go through, and some people get stuck there.”

Journalists began to write that the wide-open spaces in Frisell’s music reflected his Colorado background. He was puzzled by the comments, because he’d grown up in a city and his musical spaces reflected the influence of Miles Davis and ECM Records more than the geography of the Front Range. Rather than just dismiss the comments, as many musicians would, Frisell began to think about all the country music he had in fact overheard in Colorado.

He realized that much of his favorite rock ’n’ roll—Bob Dylan, the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield—had a strong country influence. One of Frisell’s earliest jazz heroes, Gary Burton, had apprenticed with legendary country guitarist Hank Garland (a mentor to Haden as well). Burton had returned to Nashville in 1966 to record jazz arrangements of Bob Dylan and Bob Wills tunes with such Music Row pickers as Chet Atkins, Charlie McCoy and Buddy Emmons on the Tennessee Firebird album. Maybe country music was something Frisell should check out.

“I had tried to ignore it and had even actively resisted it,” he confesses, “but at some point I realized I really liked it. And when I let myself like it, I became fascinated with trying to find what it had in common with jazz. What interested me the most were those moments when you couldn’t tell if someone was black or white, from deep in the South or from Canada, whether it was African music being influenced by hillbilly music or the other way around. I like it when our assumptions get messed up. The deeper you look into American music, the more the names, boundaries and all the racial stuff just melts away.”

Maybe there is an underlying unity to all music, but that universal quality is filtered through the specific history, vocabulary, techniques and influences of each musician and his or her surrounding community (or communities). To deny the importance of that filter is to deny the glorious, particular achievement of a community such as Bristol, Va., or New Orleans, La.

To claim, as so many musicians do, that categories don’t exist and labels are irrelevant is to negate the special chemistry that occurs when players from different worlds collide. When Randy Weston plays with Moroccan drummers, when Christian McBride plays with turntablist DJ Logic or when Frisell plays with Dobroist Jerry Douglas, what’s fascinating is not the lack of differences but rather the way the musicians manage to make their differences coexist. You can hear that on Frisell’s breakthrough country-jazz album, 1997’s Nashville, which featured Douglas.

“When you enter new territory like that,” Douglas says, “you have to really listen. You just can’t start playing. You can’t play your usual game and use your signature sound. You can’t worry if the listener is going to identify you. With Bill, I was trying to be a chameleon, trying to get on his level, to twist things around the same way, with the same fucked-up character. It’s natural for him, but I’m trying to reach his thought level.

“I was looking for a connection between his world and mine. Finally I heard it. I asked him if he’d ever heard any Louvin Brothers records with Chet Atkins on them. He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘That’s what I’m hearing. You’re country, even if you don’t know it.’”

“I grew up spending hours upon hours trying to play a Sonny Rollins song or dealing with a certain jazz form,” Frisell explains. “Then I come to a Carter Family song, some of which are in very odd forms, and I realize I have to study them just as hard. I have to internalize them the same way I internalized the ‘I Got Rhythm’ changes. I didn’t grow up playing Carter Family songs, and that’s why it’s very cool to play with people for whom those were the first songs they played. I’ll never have that. I’ll always be playing them from a distance from people who grew up playing them as babies. Jerry grew up like that; it’s totally in his blood.”

Douglas was just one of a circle of newgrass pickers in the ’70s—a group that included David Grisman, Tony Rice, Béla Fleck, Mark O’Connor and many more—who had reached such a level of virtuosity in bluegrass that they started looking for new challenges. Jazz was the natural next step. Douglas would title one of his solo albums, Lookout for Hope, after a Frisell composition. O’Connor would record with both Stephane Grappelli and Wynton Marsalis and even form his own jazz combo, the Hot Swing Trio. Rice would record songs by Miles Davis, Gary Burton and Django Reinhardt. Grisman would record songs by Chick Corea, Grappelli and Denny Zeitlin.

“In 1977,” says Douglas, “I went out to California to play on a David Grisman record. I was staying out at Tony Rice’s house, and we’d stay up all night listening to jazz records. We were looking for somewhere else to go, because we’d gone as far as we could with bluegrass. We could recreate what Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs had done, but to go somewhere new, we needed a new vocabulary. Jazz was the obvious answer, because it’s such a physical music and such an improvisational music, just like bluegrass. Our whole trip in bluegrass was playing the melody and then improvising on that melody. So jazz didn’t seem so different.”

No one took this bluegrass-jazz fusion further than Fleck. When he formed the Flecktones with Victor Wooten, Roy Wooten and Howard Levy in 1988, he created a jazz-funk fusion environment for his acoustic banjo and all its hillbilly associations. This unlikely instrumental quartet not only thrived but actually became a fixture on jazz polls everywhere. Levy was eventually replaced by jazz saxophonist Jeff Coffin, and the group has recorded with such major jazz figures as Branford Marsalis, Oregon’s Paul McCandless and Fleck’s boyhood hero, Chick Corea.

“When you’re in your late teens,” Fleck told me in 1995, “it’s the most impressionable time musically in your whole life. Everyone reading this can remember a time in their teens when their mind was blown by a concert or a record. For me it happened when I was 17 and I was sitting in the front row at a Chick Corea and Return to Forever show at the Beacon Theatre in New York in 1975. I was so excited by the music I wanted to play it myself. Of course, I had a problem, because my instrument was the banjo.

“When I got home, I tried to transcribe Chick’s solo from ‘Spain,’ but it had a lot of harmonic material which was strange to me, because it was so different from what Earl Scruggs was doing, although the rhythms were very similar. Then I had the great flash that everything Stanley Clarke and Al Di Meola were playing in Return to Forever had to be able to be played on the banjo. After all, I could see their fingers moving over the strings and fingerboard.”

Fleck taught himself how to find every chromatic note on the banjo fretboard, and that enabled him to play single-note runs rather than the usual arpeggios. Eventually, he was able to play Return to Forever tunes, even if they came out with the percussive twang of his chosen instrument. But he liked that he could go in either direction, that he could still play in bluegrass contexts but could also feel comfortable in jazz situations.

“I’m one of the very few guys who have played with both Tony Rice and Chick Corea,” Fleck pointed out. “When you record with them, there are no bad takes, just choices, because they both have such a natural sense of rhythm. In bluegrass, the musicians who are most admired are those who put the spaces between the notes just right—musicians like Tony, J.D. Crowe and Mike Marshall—and Chick is like that; he’s always right on the edge of the beat.”

“Béla was breaking brand new ground,” Douglas confirms. “There was no one ahead of him. It wasn’t like, ‘We’re going to just hint at it and if it doesn’t work, we’ll back off.’ They stuck to their guns and kept at it. I admire that.”

When Haden decided to finally revisit the country music of his childhood on Rambling Boy, it was natural that he would invite such newgrassers as Fleck, Douglas, Ricky Skaggs, Sam Bush and Russ Barenberg to be part of it.

When Haden turned two in 1939, he joined the Haden Family. “One of my earliest memories,” he writes in the liner notes, “was my mother holding me in her arms up to the microphone so that I could sing on the radio … I remember singing on the radio each morning before I went off to school. I did that every day until I was 15.”

The Haden Family was a featured act on the Korn’s-a-Krackin’ radio show broadcast from Springfield, Mo. But young Charlie listened to everything on the radio dial—not just the tunes by his parents’ friends such as Porter Wagoner, Chet Atkins and Mother Maybelle Carter but also the hits by the swinging big bands of the day. In 1951, when he was 14, Haden traveled to Omaha for a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert; he heard a new kind of jazz that changed his life forever.

“To hear Charlie Parker improvise sounded so miraculous,” he recalls, “that I wanted to do it myself. It made a lot of sense to me because improvisation is a big part of country music. If you listen to Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Hank Williams or the Stanley Brothers, they’re not following a score; they’re improvising. So it wasn’t that different. It’s like seeing a rose and then seeing a hummingbird. It’s different but it’s just as beautiful. My father taught that we had to be in perfect tune so it sounded really pretty. Later I read a quote from Charlie Parker about ‘looking for the pretty notes,’ which was the same thing my dad said.”

When he turned 15, Haden came down with polio, which brought his singing career to an end. He picked up the bass, and when they weren’t on the air at the radio station, he would jam on jazz tunes with Eddy Arnold’s guitarist Hank Garland and Red Foley’s guitarist Grady Martin (a future member of Willie Nelson’s band), jazz fans for the same reasons the newgrassers would be later. When he graduated from high school, Haden headed for Los Angeles, already a seasoned performer at 18 after 16 years as a professional musician. He met Don Cherry and then Ornette Coleman and there was no turning back.

Haden never let go of his country roots entirely, however. On Coleman’s Change of the Century album, for example, Haden quoted the mountain tune “Old Joe Clark” during his solo on “Ramblin’.” British rocker Ian Dury would turn that solo into a song called “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” in 1977. Haden’s love of country music made it easy for him to adapt the folk songs of Spain and Central America for his Liberation Music Orchestra projects. It enabled him to record Steal Away: Spirituals, Hymns and Folk Songs as an unaccompanied duo album with Hank Jones in 1995. It led him to include songs associated with Roy Acuff and Glen Campbell on his 1997 album with Pat Metheny, Beyond the Missouri Sky.

“When we did that album,” Haden says, “I introduced Pat to Roy Acuff and the Delmore Brothers. He said, ‘Gee, these are such great songs.’ Even though he had grown up in Missouri too, he was unfamiliar with all that, because he grew up with the Beatles.”

In 1988, Haden’s wife Ruth Cameron bought plane tickets for everyone in the extended family to attend the 80th birthday of Charlie’s mother in Kissee Mills, Mo. She lived in a cabin at the end of a gravel road on the bank of Bull Shoals Lake. There were homemade apple dumplings, biscuits and gravy, chicken and dumplings and ice cream made with a hand crank. After dinner Ruth encouraged everyone to sing and when Charlie heard his daughters sing “You Are My Sunshine,” he knew he had to make a record of country music.

Like Haden, Jenny Scheinman also grew up singing country and folk songs. Her family lived in California’s Humboldt County, the westernmost point in the lower 48 states, a community of ranchers and rural bohemians. For years her family had neither a phone nor electricity, and she often traveled to school by horseback. The family entertained itself with acoustic instruments and songs out of the country and folk-revival traditions. Jenny picked up the fiddle and soon it became the center of her life.

She left home at 16 and ended up playing swing fiddle with the Hot Club of San Francisco. That experience fanned the embers of her fledgling interest in jazz and in 1999 she moved to New York, where she fell in with a crowd of jazzers, singer-songwriters and rockers that included Lee Alexander, Kenny Wollesen and Norah Jones. Scheinman played violin on Jones’ breakthrough album, Come Away With Me, and Jones returned the favor by encouraging her friend to sing in public. When Scheinman became a regular collaborator with Frisell, the tug toward country music became even stronger.

“Probably one of the reasons Bill hired me,” the violinist concedes, “is I had that country and folk music in my past but I’d also spent all that time in the jazz soup. He didn’t grow up with it, so in some ways he’s more flexible with it. He’s coming at it as a jazz player, whereas I’d played those tunes as a traditional country player.

“Before our first gig together at the Village Vanguard, he sent me this huge packet of material. Some of the tunes I knew from his records, but there was also ‘John Hardy,’ ‘Pretty Polly,’ ‘Cuckoo,’ Dock Boggs’ ‘Sugar Baby’ and Hank Williams’ ‘Your Cheating Heart.’ My dad had learned those tunes as a kid, and I had learned them from him. It was really something for me to step into the Vanguard where my father had once gone to hear folk music and to be on stage with Bill playing ‘Goodnight, Irene.’ It was a tying together of two strands of my life that I thought would never meet. That was a green light from someone that I admire tremendously and probably led to these two records.”

Those two records, both released in 2008, were Crossing the Field, Scheinman’s instrumental jazz project, and Jenny Scheinman, her collection of old country, folk and blues songs, plus four originals in the same vein. Like Haden’s Rambling Boy, Jenny Scheinman puts the country/folk music out front and keeps the jazz influences at the margins. The record made such an impression on Rodney Crowell that the country star has hired Scheinman as part of his touring trio and gives her a chance to sing several songs during the show.

“I don’t know what makes me do things except they get stuck in my head and I can’t get rid of them,” Scheinman says. “I grew up with those folk and fiddle songs, and they had to come out in some way. I guess it’s the classic American experience, to go to sleep at night and dream of the landscapes of your childhood, which are so different from the ones you wake up to.”

One of the best-selling jazz records of 2008 was Two Men With the Blues, the collaboration between Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis. Its success was so unexpected that it hadn’t even been planned as a record. The two men had played a show for Jazz at Lincoln Center, and it was only after Blue Note Records president Bruce Lundvall read Nate Chinen’s review in the New York Times that he checked to see if anyone had taped the performance. Someone had, and when he heard the CD-R Lundvall wanted to release it. After all, he had long before signed Nelson to Columbia Records, when Lundvall worked at that label.

“Jerry Wexler once told me, ‘Willie is one of the best jazz singers in the world,’” Lundvall says, referring to the late Atlantic Records executive, “and I said, ‘You know, you’re right.’ Willie’s phrasing and his timing is perfect for jazz. He’s behind the beat; he phrases very personally. He sings one word and you know it’s Willie. And his guitar playing is as special as his singing.”

The album has sold more than 200,000 copies, which is impressive for an act that hasn’t toured together to support the title. But in the wake of this unexpected triumph, there may be more collaborations between Nelson and Marsalis, Lundvall hints. He says the potential of country-jazz fusion is evident not only in this project but also in another Blue Note artist.

“Norah Jones absorbed country music the same way Willie did,” Lundvall points out, “just by growing up in Texas. Willie Nelson was her absolute hero; her first gig was with Willie. She and Willie are both naturals; they both know how to use space in their phrasing. They have that special thing where you hear one word out of their mouths and you know who it is. Her piano playing reminds me of Floyd Cramer; it’s as much country as jazz.”

Sometimes, when you’re not sure if it’s OK to venture into territory that’s dismissed as frivolous or gimmicky, you need a nod of approval from one of your heroes to go ahead anyway. If Nelson gave Jones permission to mix up country and jazz, Haden did the same for Frisell.

“Charlie’s one of the leading links between all this stuff,” the guitarist says. “He let me know that it’s OK. For him, it’s all music and if you like it, you don’t have to be afraid to play it. When I was younger in Colorado, I definitely had an attitude that it was not cool to play country music; I wanted to be a hip, cool jazz guy. Gradually I shrugged that off. To know that someone like Charlie Haden had done it made it easier. If someone who played with Ornette can play country music, it must be OK.”

Originally published in December 2008

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