Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Bluegrass and Jazz Bands, With More in Common Than You’d Think

Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Del McCoury’s bluegrass group and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band did the proper adult thing on Wednesday night: they resolved their differences, surrounded by expensive claret.

On “American Legacies” (McCoury Music), their recent joint album, they’ve explicitly made their traditions melt together. This is an old story. Louis Armstrong did it with Jimmie Rodgers; Wynton Marsalis did it with Willie Nelson. The pairing is not a stretch, though it can seem to be. For the first half of the 20th century bands from putatively different traditions implicitly understood their common origins and points of crossover. And their repertories overlapped. Type in the song title “Corrine, Corrina” on YouTube and you’ll get Red Nichols’s jazz version, Bo Carter’s string-band blues version, and various shades of country into rock ’n’ roll from the Collins Kids, Ray Peterson, Brooks & Dunn, Big Joe Turner, and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Or you could do the same with “Milenberg Joys,” which the combined bands played near the end of their set at City Winery on Wednesday. It’s a song that Mr. McCoury — raised in the Black Mountain region of North Carolina — knew because he used to play it in Bill Monroe’s band, and the jazz group knew because Jelly Roll Morton wrote it. (The dynastic Preservation Hall band, from New Orleans, was founded in 1961 by Allan and Sandra Jaffe, parents of its current tuba player and director, Ben Jaffe; it has no original members, but the current lineup is full of familial and professional ties to the group’s past.) In that song, and in a few other places, the musicians did right by the audience: they made music subtly pan across the stage, from one band to another, so you could hear the difference in rhythmic temperament, whether in grooves or in solos.

At full strength 12 musicians stood onstage, jazz guys to the left, bluegrass to the right. The Preservation Hall band used funk and parade beats and slid into the beginning of each bar, making the “one” indistinct; by contrast, Mr. McCoury’s group bit down hard on it.

Although Mr. McCoury filled half the set with his high, clean, no-nonsense voice, there was a lot more Preservation Hall in the mix; trumpet, trombone, saxophone and tuba walked all over guitar, banjo, mandolin and string bass. (The singing styles of the Preservation Hall musicians — the trumpeter Mark Braud and the saxophonist Clint Maedgen — take up more space than Mr. McCoury, through various shades of showiness.) And the Preservation Hall band’s strong drummer, Joe Lastie, stamped an irrefutable, seductive groove deep into each song.

There were lessons and discoveries in all of that, but you wouldn’t want to overthink it; the music was too amiable and easy to like.

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