I was listening to The Gypsy at home, not so much attentively to attune myself to nuances appropriate for a review as to zone out and just absorb the music. Then my wife said, "Why are you listening to Willie Nelson? I thought you liked jazz."
Four thoughts came to mind, and no, they're not the types of thoughts you would expect when a wife questions a spouse's musical tastes. They were: (1) "Why not listen to Willie Nelson?" (2) "I like music, not just jazz." (3) "Why can't Willie Nelson be considered a jazz player?" And (4) "Willie Nelson has risen to such a height among the general listening public that anyone knows his voice."
The funny thing is, I was listening to a Jackie King CD, not Willie Nelson's. The two almost-lifelong friends collaborate on The Gypsy, and in doing so, recall the merging of genres that were more common a generation or two ago in America's Midwest, and particularly among the territory bands of the 1930's.
Bob Wills And His Playboys were extremely popular and attracted the likes of Les Paul and Charlie Christian before they moved to New York. Indeed, Charlie Christian's first radio performance was on Wills' KVOO radio program. Then we have jazz legends who grew up in the stew of country/jazz influences, like Oscar Pettiford, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Jay McShann, Claude Williams and Don Byas. It isn't necessary to sort out the influences, as much as to appreciate the originality of the blend.
Appropriately, the broad-minded Nat Hentoff writes the liner notes to The Gypsy. After all, Hentoff's book, Listen To The Stories, makes the point that there is a crossover between jazz and country music that even Charlie Parker appreciated. Quoting Bird, Hentoff writes, "Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. They teach you there's a boundary line to music. But man, there's no boundary line to art."
Thus, the answer to my questions.
The mystery of Jackie King's music is that he is as comfortable with jazz as he is with country. And why not? "There's no boundary line to art," and his music reflects the complexity of his experiences from growing up in Texas.
Having worked with Willie Nelson from the time he was 13 years old, Jackie King expanded his musical imagination to work with, yes, Roger Miller and Steve Miller. But also with Chet Baker, Big Joe Turner, Ray Charles and Sonny Stitt.
The common elements within the music are exploration and fun with standards, which remain common to numerous genres of music. Of course, "The Nearness Of You" has been played by countless jazz musicians, and the changes never fail to engage the listener. And Ray Noble's "Cherokee" always challenges improvisers. But the tune takes on special significance for King whose ancestors were Cherokee and Comanche. He and Nelson play it with ease and yet force, reminiscent of the country/jazz sound of a Les Paul, performing for the sheer joy of it.
"Once In Awhile," like "The Nearness Of You," consists of relaxed gorgeousness of improvisational guitar, one leading for a while as the other follows before they reverse roles. In between the guitar work, Don Haas' (now deceased) just-right accompaniment on piano inserts jazz changes when one expects King and Nelson to delve into a country sensibility.
Ending The Gypsy with "San Antonio Rose," played as a romp, recalls King's and Nelson's first inspirational meeting as well, and the joy of the reunion is obvious. For the open-minded listener who appreciates technical mastery and the unabashed fun of musical performance, The Gypsy, unclassifiable and yet undeniably excellent, offers 50 minutes of enjoyment that defy intellectualism and classification.
Track Listing: The Gypsy, The Nearness Of You, Heart Of A Clown, Once In Awhile, Jealous Heart, Back Home In Indiana, My Window Faces The South, Cherokee, San Antonio Rose, Lover Come Back To Me
Personnel: Jackie King, electric guitar; Willie Nelson, vocals & acoustic guitar; Don Haas, piano; Andrew Higgins, acoustic bass; Jon Blondell, electric bass; Bob Scott, drums