dobro jazz

pianist michael alvey, dobroist rob ickes and singer robinella perform tonight at the woodsongs old-time radio hour. photo by adam frehm.

pianist michael alvey, dobroist rob ickes and singer robinella perform tonight at the woodsongs old-time radio hour. photo by adam frehm.

When Ron Ickes takes to the dobro, one can’t help but hear the sounds of traditional and contemporary bluegrass converging.

His is an open sound. It’s emotive yet full of striking technical fire. And whether his playing is on display with Blue Highway, the award winning bluegrass band he has been an integral member of for the last decade and a half, or the multitudes of country and progressive bluegrass celebs he has collaborated with (Merle Haggard, Earl Scruggs, Alison Krauss, Tony Rice, David Grisman, Willie Nelson and Kentucky’s Patty Loveless top the not-so-short list), a string sound warm and restless emerges.

But there is more than a bit of the jazzman in Ickes, too. Between 1997 and 2004, he issued four solo albums that displayed varying jazz-like temperaments. While he would occasionally tackle the music of masters like Charlie Parker and Herbie Hancock on those records, Ickes was looking for the right setting and players to help him delve into the deeper end of a jazz repertoire.

“I’ve done things that were like a jazz band with a dobro in it,” said Ickes, who performs Monday at the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour (Cyril Neville of the Neville Brothers will be the program’s other guest). “And I loved the way those projects worked out. But I felt I still hadn’t really delved into the jazz repertoire. I hadn’t really sat down and learned some of those great melodies.”

The link to that repertoire, as well a collaborator versed enough in its music to unlock the performance possibilities, came from, to put it lightly, an unlikely source. The jazz co-hort Ickes had been looking for turned out not to be an instrumental all-star, but his daughter’s elementary school music teacher.

“A year or two ago, my daughter Janelle said, ‘Mr. Alvey wants to know if you will come and play for our class sometime.’ So I went down to her school and her teacher is sitting there at a piano. We started playing and the guy just blows me away. Something, musically, just clicked.”

“Mr. Alvey” is Michael Alvey, a pianist known to the Nashville studio musicians community with credits that include leading bands at Opryland. But as the majority of his career has favored teaching over high profile performing, he is little known in the worlds of bluegrass and jazz.

From there, Ickes designed his fifth and newest solo album, Road Song, as a series of duets for dobro and piano. Regardless of its jazz inclinations, such a pairing of acoustic instruments is novel in the extreme.

“The sustain of the dobro really melts over those piano chords,” Ickes said. “If I tried to play those melodies note for note with a guitar or mandolin, they wouldn’t sound right. There is just something about those sustained chords that a piano player uses. It’s like I have more notes to choose from, more colors to play with.”

As for the mission of pursuing a jazz repertoire, Road Song states its case in its title tune – one of two compositions on the record by the landmark guitarist Wes Montgomery. There are also a pair of Duke Ellington staples (Take the “A” Train and Caravan) that became challenges because Ickes was intent on learning and playing the tunes in the keys they were written in – something many broader interpreters of Ellington’s music are either unwilling or unable to do. Then there are the two diamonds that open and close the album – Horace Silver’s classic Song for My Father, with it sweet, rolling piano sway, and the great Oscar Peterson spiritual Hymn to Freedom. The latter was inspired in part by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and was performed by a pair of San Francisco choirs at President Obama’s inauguration in January.

“There are so many times on this record where Michael and I are just listening to each other and responding. This is the kind of musician I like to work with – someone who listens enough to where a kind of correspondence takes place. I really like that kind of interaction.”

Though Road Song is built around dobro/piano duets, a guest voice sits in on three songs. It belongs to East Tennessee native Robinella Bailey, who has performed her mix of string, swing, blues and jazz music professionally as simply Robinella for over a decade. On Road Song, she applies equal measures of torchy intimacy and jazzy soul to Hank Williams’ You Win Again, Hoagy Carmichael’s The Nearness of You and the 1928 standard If I Had You, which has been recorded by, among many others, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan.

Robinella, as well as Alvey, will perform with Ickes at WoodSongs.

“Robinella does things that just kill me,” Ickes said. “Just on You Win Again, I hear Mahalia Jackson. I hear Dolly Parton, Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday. I hear all kinds of influences that she can pull out at any moment.

“When you play the dobro, you really like to work with singers who have great pitch. When a singer is right on the money, you don’t have to worry about anything. Robinella hit like me that right off the bat. With her, the music just happens.”

Rob Ickes with Michael Alvey and Robinella perform at 7 tonight at the Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main, for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Cyril Neville will be the program’s other featured guest. Tickets are $10. Call (859) 252-8888.

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