There hasn’t been a great deal of "crossover" between the spheres of jazz and country music. Charlie Parker was a fan of country music, and is reputed to have sat in with country singer Ray Price’s band for an after-hours jam session in the early 1950s. Louis Armstrong recorded with Jimmie Rodgers in the ‘30s, Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis performed together, bass ace Charlie Haden sang in a family country music group as a youth, and of course Bill Frisell recorded the classic disc Nashville. In concert, Merle Haggard’s band has been known stretch-out instrumentally, and one of Glen Campbell’s favorite guitarists is Django Reinhardt. Which brings us, Dear Reader, to the debut disc of Bryan and the Haggards, a combo of young cutting-edge jazz players taking Merle’s catalog into a Twilight Zone.
Featuring two members of the roguish avant-bop quartet Mostly Other People Do The Killing Jon Irabagon and Matthew "Moppa" Elliott this quintet uses classic Haggard tunes as a point of departure for some hearty, earthy, wild ‘n’ wooly free-charged improvisations. Bryan & the Haggards clearly have a heartfelt affection for the music of Merle (on of the standard bearers of the honky tonk style, which is way different from the assembly-line pap passing for "country music" on mainstream radio). They caress, parade, and benevolently chide the original melodies and then interpret them in a cheerfully, somewhat rowdy manner. Would Merle approve? Of some of it, I’d like to think but I think the yummy-rich bluesy wail of "Miss the Mississippi and You" would get approving smiles from Ray Charles and David "Fathead" Newman in the Great After-Hours Club in the Sky. Jon Lundbom’s electric guitar has a thick, fat, sound (with hints of Frisell and Sonny Sharrock influences) with a strong Western "twang." Herein is plenty of John Zorn-like skronk, Ornette Coleman elasticity, Mingue-like abandon, and the fleet blues-itude of Cannonball Adderley.... and plenty of swing, too. Plus Bryan & his fellows bring out and highlight the blues element that deep with Haggard’s style. The musically conservative need not apply, but the eclectic and open-minded will find Pretend to be a hep-cat-approved, neighbor-aggravating party.