Jerry Douglas Band: What If

The Jerry Douglas Band
What If
(Rounder)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

If it’s Dobro you’re after, the first name that comes to anyone’s mind is Jerry Douglas. A master of the instrument (and lap steel) since he was a teenage prodigy, Douglas is the most versatile, eclectic, awarded (14 time Grammy winner) and well recorded Dobro player living and perhaps ever. He’s also the most musically inclusive, shifting from jazz to world music, blues, folk, country, rock, R&B, and of course bluegrass during a fascinating, profoundly wide-ranging 40 plus year career that has found him collaborating with a multitude of “A list” musicians from various genres including Emmylou Harris, Paul Simon and Derek Trucks.

But in a way, What If is a new beginning. It’s the debut from the appropriately named Jerry Douglas Band after a few dozen titles in partnership with others and solo. The expansive, seven piece unit includes a sax and trumpet horn section in addition to bass, drums, guitar, fiddle, obviously Douglas’ Dobro and, perhaps unexpectedly, occasional vocals.

Not surprisingly, it’s a freewheeling, musically sprawling set, perhaps more jazz and rock oriented than most would expect. Douglas writes most of the material yet works up innovative, substantially rearranged versions of “Hey Joe,” best known by Hendrix’s cover but here given a caffeinated backwoods workup, and Tom Waits’ “2:19.” The album’s centerpiece is its title track, a pensive progressive jazz/bluegrass fusion instrumental that allows the members to stretch out and shows both their creativity and talent. Ditto for the Douglas-Bela Fleck co-write “Freemantle,” best described as bluegrass/jazz fusion, where Douglas’ Dobro interweaves with the horns and guitar in electrifying fashion.

There’s enough fret-shredding in the opening five minute “Cave Bop” (a re-recording of a Douglas original, first heard in 2002) with its high energy soloing and near free-jazz approach, and the closing “Hot Country 84.5” that’s somewhat more laid back but just as musically challenging, to satisfy those looking for Douglas’ sizzling picking. But it’s the interaction of the instruments throughout, in particular the horns, that makes this a true band production. More meditative material such as the Celtic-influenced “Butcher Boy” and the lovely “The Last Wild Moor” incorporate group members with restrained instrumental grandstanding. The contemplative “Go Ahead and Leave” is a sweet showcase for Douglas’ sedate side.

Whether you come for hot licks, compositional diversity or to experience a talented band firing on all cylinders with like-minded players delving into a variety of styles they love, the superb What If has you covered. Hopefully this is the start of a long term ensemble, willing to test individual musical parameters and expand their roots based standards into new, dynamic and fresh frontiers.