WHAT IS FRONTIER JAZZ?
I had no idea that singing in a San Francisco-based vocal jazz ensemble called Jazzmouth in the mid-1980s, and contra-dancing to bluegrass in church basements in Portland, Oregon in the 1990s, would bring me to the point of recording this CD. Billie & Dolly inaugurates a sound that’s been brewing in my head for years as the result of those two activities—a sound that I call “Frontier Jazz.” Béla Fleck probably calls it something else, but as a vocalist, the word frontier makes the most sense to me.
Henry Darragh, a talented vocalist and bandleader in his own right, arranged most of the songs on this CD. With an excellent ear, an open mind, and the ability to take direction smartly, Henry translated those “brewed” sounds into fun, inventive arrangements.
You will hear a lot of banjo. Sometimes the cello stands in for fiddle. You will hear guitar and accordion—folk instruments that bring you to the banks of the Mississippi and onto a bed of St. Augustine grass—the sound of the American frontier.
With the help of that same cello, add the flute, flugelhorn and piano, and you’ll hear passages reminiscent of Copland’s orchestral frontier—lush, optimistic chords, alternating with the sultry and penetrating. For this reason, about halfway through rehearsals, I got into the habit of calling the band an orchestra because of this diversity of sound.
There are songs from the American Songbook, from the world of musical theater, a science song written for children. Throw in some funk and Zydeco, and Billie & Dolly becomes even harder to categorize. But with the help of that ever-present banjo pastoral riff, the essence of the frontier should be felt throughout. Sometimes the touch is pointillist; at others it’s a broad yellow stroke of Van Gogh.
Maybe these sounds will become a constant weaving in and out of styles that makes you think you know what you’re listening to … until something changes … or not … or slightly … or radically.
WHY BILLIE & DOLLY?
What two better vocalists to embody the meld of jazz and bluegrass than Billie Holiday and Dolly Parton? They are both vocal heroes to me, and I consider them both soul sisters. My homage to them is indirect—in both vocal and physical delivery. The bluegrass and jazz fusion occurs predominantly in the instrumentation, although vocally I may mash the styles up depending on my mood at the moment. I may phrase like Billie in a bluegrass song, or yodel in a Gershwin tune. And in true jazz form, in live performance, no song would ever sound the same way twice.
In reality, this CD contains only two songs that are exclusively Billie or Dolly—God Bless the Child, and Endless Stream of Tears. The other nine take their musical influences and runs with them either vocally or instrumentally, or both—to more or less jazz, bluegrass, or orchestral effect, depending on the song and the creativity brought by everyone in the room.
My visual homage to Billie was to avoid the cliché of wearing the gardenia in my hair. Instead, a garland of gardenias rings an old-fashioned microphone, creating a nostalgic pinwheel. For Dolly, it was enough to lounge on hay bales against a backdrop of sunrise and green grass to set her tone.
I hope I’ve done them—and the rest of the jazz and bluegrass world—proud.