Like “Gator Strut,” the Jerry Douglas Band’s “What If” swirls genres in unexpected and mind-blowing ways around a loose core of progressive bluegrass using the best studio sound possible. Douglas, aka Flux — who’s evolved from bluegrass to newgrass to New Age to world fusion, with countless session dates and collaborations along the way as well as a nearly 20-year stint in Alison Krauss and Union Station — has again stepped out of his comfort zone to come up with something new.
“Something new” this time is a pleasantly surreal alternate musical universe that shape-shifts through bluegrass, country, folk, rock and blues but with a constant jazz denominator supplied by JDB guitarist Mike Seal, saxophonist Jamel Mitchell and trumpeter Vance Thompson.
“I’ve always heard horn lines in my songs, and I usually put something else there instead,” Douglas explains in his record label’s press release for the album; oftentimes, that “something else” was mandolin and/or banjo. But this time the listener gets to hear what was originally in the artist’s head.
“Unfolding” unfolds with solos, beginning with Douglas’ bluesy riffing. Next in the spotlight are Christian Sedelmyer’s violin and Mitchell’s sax, which in conjunction with the Dobro recall just how great Loggins and Messina’s extended pieces on “Full Sail” and “Mother Lode” were. Then the song takes a left turn into free-form, as Seal cuts loose with an Allan Holdsworth-ian jam. The final solo is offered up(right) by bassist Daniel Kimbro, before a reprise of the main melody closes out the whole affair.
“2:19,” one of the only two vocal numbers, features some surprisingly capable and soulful singing by Douglas on a Tom Waits cover that’s given somewhat of a “Ry Cooder by way of New Orleans” treatment. The other vocal number (again sung by Douglas) is an interpretation of the massively covered 1960s classic “Hey Joe” and arguably the album’s most bluegrassy production.
The title track easily is the most emotional, with its extended classical intro dissolving into plaintive and mellow twin-horn action that comes and goes throughout before the song drifts away on a short-but-sweet display of guitar subtly reminiscent of Jerry Garcia.
Other highlights include the opening “Cavebop” (beatnik hillbilly jazz, featuring really great offbeat drumming by Doug Belote); a trio of Celtic-style tunes (“Go Ahead and Leave,” “Butcher Boy” and “The Last Wild Moor”); and the closing “Hot Country 84.5,” an overtly country ditty that cheerfully straddles the line between waltz and shuffle.
“What If” is a departure for Douglas in that it’s a band album. But it’s also a more than worthy addition to his lengthy line of fine instrumental releases, and one that admirably extends his creative reach into uncharted territory.
4. What If
5. Hey Joe
6. Battle Stick
7. Go Ahead And Leave
8. Butcher Boy
10. The Last Wild Moor
11. Hot Country 84.5
Total time: 52:00