June 5, 2012
Ah, yes, the summer outdoor concert scene: blankets, coolers, low-chakra people watching, and the never-ending search for a show that’s more than the sum of its parts. Often, however, not being the loftiest wedge in the bag, it takes me a while to perceive just how truly profound a pairing of musical performing artists might be.
This week’s case in point is a perfect example. When the wraps first came off the 2012 Red Butte Garden Outdoor Concert Series lineup a month or so back, there were many shows that, right out of the chute, were well within my music-appreciation wheelhouse, as it were.
One of them, however this upcoming Sunday’s "American Legacies" pairing of The Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Del McCoury Band is resonating as much as the bigger names on their menu, and not just because they are two of my longtime favorite musical ensembles.
There are melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic undertones at work here, not to mention history, ethnomusicology, and the evolution of American music as we know it. But, before I make it sound like homework, just know that this evening of top-shelf traditional bluegrass coupled with the purest of traditional New Orleans jazz will no doubt raise the bop-’til-you-drop celebratory bar to new levels.
I find something that borders upon the spiritual within traditional musical forms "trad" in the vernacular. It matters little which genre is involved, but I must cop to the notion that the brass-infused jazz preserved in a hallowed hall in the Vieux Carré neighborhood of New Orleans and the transcendental high-art Appalachian string band idiom of bluegrass do, in the final analysis, a fine marriage make.
Much has been written over the years about how all American musical forms have roots in either the African-American tradition (Mississippi Delta) or Scots-Irish tradition (Appalachia), or both, and that would include blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, gospel, bluegrass, old-timey, country, and, well, you get the drill.
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Which is what makes Sunday night’s American Legacies concert at Red Butte such a inviting collaboration for serious music fans who like to party with serious musicians from different cultures who also like to party. Mark my words, barns will be burned to the ground! The only prisoners taken will be taken to the dance.
I can only imagine how flavorful the musical gumbo will get when these two very classy and classic groups get rollin’ and tumblin’ with horns and string instruments coming together to do those things they do.
First of all, both jazz and bluegrass excite similar parts of the brain. I know that because only after many years as a committed jazz snob was I able to recognize the virtuosity of, and fully participate in, string-band music in all its forms. In fact, in very short order, I went from being a jazz snob to being a bluegrass snob.
I’ll never forget my first live Del McCoury Band show. Del’s hairdo just has to be seen to be believed and his body language is "claymation" personified. But their sound is what it’s all about, with single-mic vocal harmonies and fiddle licks slicing across cutting-edge mandolin and banjo riffs by Del’s sons Ronnie and Robbie. They flat-out blow your socks off.
The fact that I was already a trad-jazz fan at the time I first caught the PHJB in person did little to keep me in my seat or on my good behavior. "Down in front" never worked on me much. After a second helping, a friend and I reacted by making a pilgrimage to the French Quarter and checking them out in Preservation Hall itself.
In talking to them after the show, we learned they had just returned from performing at Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday bash at Madison Square Garden. As it turned out, that’s where they first became friends with the Del McCoury Band. And, as they say, the rest is geography or something like that.
I can’t think of a more astutely conceived concert pairing. It’s so obvious! Especially when, as friends and pickin’ partners, they intrude at will upon each others shtick. From now on, "When the Saints Go Marching In" owes as much to bluegrass as it does to trad jazz. As, inversely, does, in the ongoing spirit of cross-pollination, "I’ll Fly Away."
Check it out! Be "trad!" Think of it as interdisciplinary studies for the enlightened.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.