Legendary jazz-bluegrass mashup at Red Butte
When the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Del McCoury's bluegrass band convened in 2010 to record an album together, the band members were trading songs when someone suggested "Mullensburg Joys."
That's a Bill Monroe song, McCoury said. The 73-year-old bluegrass standard-bearer should know: McCoury used to sing and play rhythm guitar for Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys back in the 1960s.
Ben Jaffe, leader of the Jazz Band, politely corrected McCoury, telling him the song was actually written by jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton.
Remarkably, the song was in both bands' repertories. "Oh, my God, we're not that far apart," Jaffe said he thought at the time.
Blending bluegrass and jazz struck some listeners as a novelty when the album "American Legacies" was released in 2011, but Jaffe and McCoury will tell you the American genres are close bedfellows.
"It's not Chinese food on top of a pizza," Jaffe said. "It works together."
The first time the Del McCoury Band played with a New Orleans institution was in early 2010, when the bluegrass musicians were asked to collaborate on "Preservation: An Album to Benefit Preservation Hall & The Preservation Hall Music Outreach Program."
Despite "never singing with a jazz band before," McCoury's high and lonesome tenor voice accompanied the band on "Careless Love" and "After You've Gone." The album features tracks by Tom Waits and Ani DiFranco, yet McCoury's honky-tonk-influenced tracks are charming and seem the most natural when coupled with the brass-propelled Dixieland.
Soon, the idea for the "American Legacies" album was hatched. "Let's just do a record together," McCoury said. "Let's get these two bands together and see what comes out."
"I really didn't know much about the bluegrass tradition," said Jaffe, a bassist whose father turned Preservation Hall, at 726 Saint Peter St. in the French Quarter, into the must-see music venue in New Orleans. But Jaffe figured New Orleans jazz is dance music, and bluegrass is dance music, so why not link up with McCoury and his band to record an album?
Over two days, the 12 players five in McCoury's band, seven in the Jazz Band tackled tunes such as "Mullensburg Joys," "Jambalaya" and "One Has My Name (The Other Has My Heart)." McCoury is 73, while the jazz band's clarinetist Charlie Gabriel is 79, and Jaffe is 41, but the Jazz Band leader said he still had "to work out to keep up with them."
Despite the musical success of the combined tracks, the Jazz Band and Del McCoury Band usually are on never-ending tours on separate routes. "We don't always get the opportunity to play together," Jaffe said. "It's on the rare side when we get to play together. When we do meet up, it's a special occasion."
Sunday's Red Butte gig with the Del McCoury Band and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is one of just five the two bands are scheduled to play together in 2012. Each one of those five concerts will be different, McCoury said.
"A great bluegrass musician won't play the same song the same way twice," he said. "In that respect, it's a lot like jazz."
Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Del McCoury Band will perform a mixed concert jazz and bluegrass at Red Butte Garden.
When • Sunday, June 10, at 7 p.m.
Where • Red Butte Garden, 300 Wakara Way, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $35 for Garden members, $40 for others, at redbuttegarden.org or 801-585-0556.