Country & Jazz: Why This Marriage Works

Something I’ve found myself drawn to lately is the phenomenon of jazz musicians making records in a country/western template. It’s strange, but it started while ago when I saw the Charlie Haden movie “Rambling Boy” at the Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival.

The movie talked about Charlie’s past as a sideman, bandleader and composer in the jazz avant garde, particularly his work with the dissonant craziness of Ornette Coleman. Charlie actually came from a rural upbringing and used to perform old folk and country songs with his family. In 2009 him and his family invited some famous friends over and recorded a beautiful collection of country and bluegrass songs, with the breezy feel of an afternoon BBQ. The result is a genuinely thrilling listen.

Something I’ve heard a lot is that jazz is a type of music that’s more about intellect than it is about heart. This general misconception I’m assuming stems from the perceived academic and cerebral nature of a lot of instrumental jazz. Such lazy and superficial assessment completely ignores the fact that the word “jazz” itself covers an incredibly wide array of styles. In fact, as a “genre” it’s probably the widest-covering catch-all term there is– if Diana Krall and Naked City are both considered “jazz”, that says a lot about the supposed boundaries of the term. And while a lot of it is overindulgent and somewhat “unemotional”, it all stems from an emotional place, and I think when a jazz musician brings their dexterity and thorough knowledge of musical theory to a genre as explicitly emotional as old-time country, what you get is a deeply affecting bunch of songs.

Bill Frisell’s “Nashville” falls into this category also. Bill Frisell has been perhaps my favorite jazz guitarist for a long time because his accompaniment is extremely creative and expressive; his melodies are unpredictable and off-the-wall. You never know just where he’s gonna go. And when he applies his level of sophistication to a basic country/western music template and instrumentation, the result is a greatly rewarding piece of music.

Harmonic inventiveness, gorgeous playing, beautiful melodies over very simple chord changes and that instrumentation– the mandolins, the fiddles, the dobros, the double bass, the banjos. And listening to it on a good pair of headphones is just… tasty. Yes. Tasty is the word. That’s not creepy at all.

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