Greg Garrison's Improvised Roots Series mixes Denver's best improvisers with national greats
As a founding member of the Punch Brothers and bassist for Leftover Salmon for the past decade, Greg Garrison undoubtedly knows his way around bluegrass. Before all that, though, Garrison was a jazz fan. As a teenager, he immersed himself in albums like John Coltrane's Crescent and the Oscar Peterson Trio's Very Tall before getting heavily into bluegrass in college with albums by David Grisman, Tony Rice, and Old and In the Way.
"From there," Garrison recalls, "once I got into people like Charlie Haden, I started listening to a lot of Bill Frisell and started hearing some of the parallels — people who were crossing that divide already. I felt like I found at least a subset of jazz that really spoke to me."
Garrison, who says he feels equally at home in both worlds at this point, believes that improvisation is the biggest element binding the two together, but he's also noticed that while there are an increasing number of young players these days who are very adept at improvising, they're not necessarily immersed in jazz.
This phenomenon is one of things that drove him to start the Improvised Roots Series at Dazzle: He wanted to showcase nationally known artists from the folk/bluegrass and jazz worlds alongside some of Denver's best improvisers. The first show of the series comprised two sold-out nights last summer featuring Garrison, trumpeter Ron Miles, guitarist Bill Frisell, and Bryan Sutton, a six-time winner of the International Bluegrass Music Association's Guitar Player of the Year award.
"There's such a high concentration now of young musicians who are really good at just improvising, but they're not coming up through the jazz channels," Garrison says. "Bryan is one of the prime examples of people that I'm talking about. He's an amazing musician and great player — and not just in a country vein, but that's his language, because that's what he grew up with. He's just a great improviser who, in my opinion, can hang with any kind of open-minded player."
For the next Improvised Roots show, Garrison is bringing in Aoife O'Donovan, who sings for the progressive bluegrass act Crooked Still and sings on two songs on the Goat Road Sessions album, which features Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan. Along with O'Donovan, Garrison has tapped multi-instrumentalist Matt Flinner, reedsman John Gunther and trumpeter Dave Douglas, who was long part of John Zorn's Masada and is another musician who's not afraid to blur genres.
"The album that turned me on to Dave was Charms of the Night Sky," Garrison notes. "And that's not American folk music, but it's folk music. He's always, in my mind, been tucked into that in-between world."
While there haven't been any physical charts passed around yet, Garrison says they'll all get together and rehearse the night before their two-night stand at Dazzle. "I think that the common thread will be kind of folk-like material or something like that," he reveals, "because that's what everybody shares, in a sense. I want to feature everybody's unique voice and compositional style, or just musical world, within the context of maybe a different type of ensemble than it might normally be featured in. Hopefully everybody will bring some stuff in and we get to play a little bit of everybody's music. That would be really cool."
At some point during the Improvised Roots Series, Garrison hopes to bring in dobro master Jerry Douglas, who's played on more than 1,600 albums, along with violinist Jenny Scheinman, who has worked with Frisell and Nels Cline, drummer Scott Amendola and guitarist Julian Lage, who's played with Gary Burton.
One thing is certain: Whoever Garrison brings in, he'll definitely be able to hold his own musically. Garrison has already worked with a wide range of players, including John Scofield, Joe Lovano, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Del McCoury, Jayme Stone, Art Lande, Fred Hess, Rudy Royston, Edgar Meyer and Vassar Clements. And on 2011's Low Lonesome, he teamed up with Miles and Gunther, as well as keyboardist Erik Deutsch and drummer Marc Dalio.
For his part, Garrison says he based the album on the kind of music that he likes to listen to, "just really melodic, beautiful music. Folk-like stuff, I guess, with a certain degree of wide-openness and possibility to it, if that makes sense. A couple of the covers on there reflect that to an extent, as well."
While Garrison concedes that he's not the most disciplined composer, he writes on bass, guitar and piano, each of which he says yields different results. For instance, he'll occasionally come up with grooves on the bass but says he tends to find more harmonically interesting ideas on the piano, while most of his favorite melodies that he's written were done on guitar. Regardless of the instrument, his songs usually start with the melody.
"I remember talking to Ron Miles about it," he recalls, "and he said that when he finally started to feel like he was coming up with some good music was when he just decided to write the most beautiful thing he could think of and stopped worrying about inverting this and trying that; instead of trying to make something, he just tried to write the most beautiful melodies he could think of. That served him well, and hopefully I can use that as my guiding principle going forward."
As far as performing goes, Garrison says his approach became more refined the more bluegrass he played, especially with the Punch Brothers, because they would play and record everything acoustically — or at least as acoustically as they possibly could.
"When you're playing with good musicians in that world who have really good instruments, you have to project — you have to put out a lot of sound," he notes. "So at that point, just sonically and just the way I was able to make my instrument sound, and, I guess, from just a pure tone and presence standpoint, I feel like I grew from a lot from that, and that actually helps me. I feel like now when I play jazz, because I have just a better concept of the percussiveness of the instrument, I generally try to play with as little amplifier as I possibly can, because I really want to hear that natural warmth and attack of the instrument."
According to Garrison, who teaches music at both Metro State and the University of Colorado Denver, one of the most important things he teaches his students is versatility, something that has always served him well. "I try to expose them — whether they're electric-bass players or upright-bass players — to different kinds of music," he says of his students. "I have my electric-bass players working on Bach and my upright-bass players working on folk music, just to open their ears and see all the different possibilities."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.