Decorated bluegrass band crosses genres with finesse
To most listeners, the musical connection between jazz manouche (also known as “gypsy jazz”) and Appalachian bluegrass isn’t immediately obvious. But Western North Carolina sextet The JackTown Ramblers explore the region on the Venn Diagram where those styles intersect.
Members are well positioned to explain the relationship between these American and European musical traditions. The JackTown Ramblers have earned recognition for their prowess in Appalachian musical idioms, with four first-place spots and three second-place awards at the 2018 Ellenboro Fiddlers Convention in Rutherford County. And the traditional and jazz training of the musicians provide a background that helps them build on that connection.
Bassist-vocalist Michael Ramsey observes that music in both styles often eschews percussion. “Without drums,” he says, “the players must focus on each other for the many feels and fills of the overall group rhythm.” Guitarist-vocalist Shannon Leasure points to both styles’ placing a high value on improvisation and interplay. “When you listen to a good bluegrass band and/or gypsy-jazz group, you observe musical sensibility that’s supportive of the overall music endeavor,” he says.
Gabriel Wiseman (mandolin and vocals) downplays the novelty of combining jazz manouche and bluegrass. “The lines separating them have become more and more blurred, as many artists nowadays have such easy access to listen to so much music,” he points out. “Tunes from both genres have crossed over and are frequently played or known by artists in both categories.”
JackTown Ramblers banjoist-vocalist Brett Setzer agrees: “Both styles of music can draw references from one another and be played from backyards to the White House.” But he goes on to express a thoughtful view on the subject. “Both [genres] are drawing from the soul of the player,” he says. “No matter if it’s a professional or a beginner, they feel what they play in their being.”
Ramsey says the work of David Grisman serves as a partial model for what his band does. “Grisman began in the bluegrass realm, as defined by Bill Monroe’s mid-’40s band,” he explains. “Then he branched out into a more jazz-oriented style, though he still visits the bluegrass world.” The JackTown Ramblers aim to meld those styles as well.
The group brings its rural, mountain, decidedly American sensibility to jazz material. Wiseman admits that the Ramblers collectively “want to stand out a little by plugging in some gypsy jazz and more swing style tunes to our bluegrass-based sets.” Setzer elaborates, “We take a song that the listener may have never heard in a swingy, gypsy-jazz way and we throw it on them. … It’s like fishing. We throw the bait out, and we bring in a lot of different kinds of fish.”
“We rely on the foundation of songs and tunes written by the earlier generations of players within these styles,” says Ramsey. “And we also try to bring some original songs and instrumentals to our performances.”
“Respect for the traditions of any style of music is critical,” notes Wiseman. “But without someone pushing the envelope a little, things can stagnate somewhat.”
“We are influenced by so many traditions,” says Setzer. “But the main tradition is this: We play the music how we feel it, and how we hear it.”
The JackTown Ramblers play the Feed & Seed (3715 Hendersonville Road, Fletcher) at 7:30pm on Thursday, Sept. 18. To confirm the show and for more information, call 828-216-3492 or go to feedandseednc.com. For more information about the band, see jacktownband.com.