Jerry Douglas takes bluegrass into uncharted terrain

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      Jerry Douglas—who’s won 14 country and bluegrass Grammy awards and a staggering 27 International Bluegrass Music Association prizes, including six in 2015 alone—is playing the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival this weekend.

      Yes, you read that right. The acclaimed Dobro virtuoso, lap-steel-guitar player, and singer is headlining a show that pairs him with locally bred slide wizard Steve Dawson, who’ll be performing with his own improv-inflected Lucky Hand String Quartet.

      Having those two share a stage is a natural fit. Having Douglas play a jazz festival might seem a more left-of-centre decision, but it’s not. Instead, it honours the notion that Douglas has been a closet jazzer for most of his 62 years.

      “My first scrape with jazz was probably when I was playing in the Country Gentlemen, when I became a professional musician,” the affable performer relates, checking in from a day off in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “I heard Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli, and that just set me on fire.…Now I’m on to Thad Jones and dense, horn-section jazz. But I’ve also listened to Chick Corea and Weather Report, all those bands like that, and I’ve been stealing ideas from them for years.”

      Although it’s hard to pin down exactly what kind of music the Jerry Douglas Band plays on its aptly titled debut, What If, the label that fits best is probably jazz. Trumpet player Vance Thompson teaches jazz history at the University of Tennessee. Saxophonist Jamel Mitchell’s uncle was the late Willie Mitchell, a jazz trumpeter better known as leader of the house band for the legendary Hi Records label. And when drummer Doug Belote’s not on the road with Douglas, he’s in New Orleans, doing what New Orleans drummers do best. (Bassist Daniel Kimbro, guitarist Michael Seal, and violinist Christian Sedelmyer round out the septet’s unusual instrumentation.)

      “I think it’s the best group of musicians I’ve ever played with, and I’ve been in a lot of bands,” Douglas says. “I’m inspired every night, listening to these guys play. I keep pinching myself, going ‘Why do these guys want to play this hillbilly music that I’m making up?’ But they love it, because it’s so different from anything they’ve ever played.”

      One thing that surprises Douglas is that his bluegrass fans are mostly willing to follow him into this unconventional terrain—but perhaps that’s because his new music expresses a timely, almost utopian vision of American inclusiveness.

      “That really hadn’t come up on my radar, but I guess it does, just by default,” he says. “I mean, I’m an expander. It’s not a new thing for bluegrass people to reach outside, and
      I think it’s because of the improvisational aspect of the music. We know how to play what we grew up playing and what’s ingrained in us, but we want to stretch it.”

      The Jerry Douglas Band plays the Vogue Theatre on Saturday (June 30), as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.