Jazz and bluegrass are more than kissin’ cousins these days. In fact, they're pretty much joined at the hip. It’s a marriage that Canadian banjo player Tim Posgate espouses, if you’ll forgive the pun. (Even if you won’t, still making it.)
Posgate has a group called Sorry Cousins, speaking of cousins, and they explore the intersection of jazz and bluegrass. All you need to know is this: jazz and bluegrass have more in common than you may think.
Posgate lifts the veil on the marriage of jazz and bluegrass in this Q&A with CBC Music.
Q: You’ve said that there’s something of an “invasion” of bluegrass music in the jazz scene. What do you mean?
A: I am not sure if it is that, vice versa or both. It seems to me that there is a huge amount of crossover in these styles of music today. All the members of my group Sorry Cousins are formally trained jazz musicians. Our bassist, Michael Herring, is a very busy and in-demand jazz bassist, including the touring he does with his progressive jazz
group Peripheral Vision. My friend, fellow jazz musician Rob Clutton, is in Kentucky right now doing research on bluegrass. His band, the Cluttertones, is a progressive project with many influences, including jazz and bluegrass. Toronto musicians Andrew Downing and Nick Fraser, best known as jazz players, have been touring with banjoist Jayme Stone. Also, I have done some teaching for the Humber College music program in the last couple years and it seems to me that a lot of the musicians coming out of that program are interested in bluegrass, and many performing it too.
If I look beyond the Toronto scene and consider people like Bela Fleck and Chris Thile and Punch Brothers, I see them and other bluegrass musicians playing jazz or at least playing music that seems quite informed by the jazz tradition.
Q: Why bluegrass, why now?
A: There are similarities in the two types of music. Both types of music are essentially acoustic music. Also, both offer up improvisation as a central part of the tradition. Because of this there is also an emphasis put on strong musicianship or even virtuosic playing. The answer to "Why now?" might just be because of the increasingly open approach that jazz has continued to embrace over the last 15 or 20 years. I suppose bluegrass is just one of the many worlds that jazz connects and shares with today.
Q: Jazz is mostly an urban music; bluegrass seems tied to rural traditions. Where’s the cultural connection?
A: This is true, however, in the YouTube/internet age we live in where people are playing any and all kinds of music wherever they live. Both types of music have ragtime and blues music as their roots. I also find there to be similarities in the rhythmic language of jazz and bluegrass. For example, Charlie Parker wrote beautiful bebop melodies that have led us to the more recent deconstruction of this language by someone like Henry Threadgill. This idea seems similar to the fiddle tunes that were written by the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe, while today we can enjoy the more modern roots music compositions of someone like banjoist Ryan Cavanaugh.
Another connection and common meeting point is early jazz or gypsy jazz. You will often hear bluegrass musicians playing this part of the jazz tradition. Mandolinist David Grisman and his self-titled style of Dawg Music had a lot to do with this.
When I was writing music for my last CD, Banjo Hockey, I was trying to express myself through my writing and playing with three horn players and my banjo, so it sounded more like jazz. Now with Sorry Cousins I am trying to do the same thing, but with three other string players. The fact that we look more like a bluegrass band makes it harder to
disguise, I guess. Ha!
Q: What do you love about playing bluegrass/jazz crossover, as opposed to either jazz, or bluegrass?
A: I think I just love the fact that I can play exactly what I am inspired to play and/or compose. As a banjoist you can't stay away from listening to Flatt and Scruggs and all the great bluegrass records because of the brilliant banjo playing that is such a big part
of that music. So, when I put it all in a blender it comes out "me" every time. At this point in my life, I guess I am one big, tasty, jazz/bluegrass smoothie.