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Nu-Bluegrass Singer Aoife O’Donovan Sneaks Onto 2012 “Best Jazz Album” Lists with Dave Douglas Quintet

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It should come as no surprise to find trumpeter Dave Douglas behind one of 2012’s most accessible and successful musical cross-pollinations. The jazzman’s musical peregrinations have encompassed explorations of folk traditions from the Balkans to the Caribbean. As Nate Chinen put it in the New York Times, Douglas’s “body of work reflects an inveterate engagement with the world.” Well known for mingling jazz with other forms, Douglas and his quintet teamed up last year with vocalist Aoife O’Donovan, alt-folk’s It Girl of the moment, to transport a set of hymns and folk songs into the jazz idiom, and the resulting album appeared on many lists of the year’s top jazz releases, incluing No. 1 at The Jazz Breakfast’s Festive 50 (“sublime…quiet, thoughtful, gently crafted, played with deep but held-in feeling”) and No. 2 at Pop Matters (“incomparably lovely…the whole record shines and soothes your soul”).

I first heard O’Donovan in the context of her band Crooked Still, and found that band’s flavor of progressive bluegrass too sleepy for my taste. I took real notice of her talents when she appeared as a guest on The Goat Rodeo Sessions, Yo-Yo Ma’s transcendent collaboration with Chris Thile, Stuart Duncan, and Edgar Meyer. Her voice on “Here and Heaven,” which she co-wrote, helped lend that song its astonishing atmosphere – glittering, angelic, but excruciatingly anxious at the same time, a remarkable synthesis.

She appears on six of the nine tracks on Douglas’s Be Still, where simple traditional melodies are carefully complicated by unexpected chord substitutions (in the folk song “Barbara Allen” for example) and intricate rhythms (in numbers like the hymn “This Is My Father’s World”). One of the things that makes the album a really unique animal is the non-jazziness in Ms. O’Donovan’s style. Her whispery but assured vocals meld calmly into the jazz arrangements, her phrasing and tone sophisticated but not slick, smart but not showy. Jazz’s improvisatory character and O’Donovan’s studied folk stylings coordinate surprisingly well.

The project took its final form through a confluence of two circumstances. Douglas’s mother, nearing the end of her days, told him what songs she wanted played at her funeral. Later, inspired, he began planning to arrange and record those traditional hymns with his group. But then he heard Ms. O’Donovan’s unmistakeably ethereal voice, and felt he had to invite her to participate in the project – even though he had never before recorded an album with a vocalist, let alone one whose background wasn’t primarily in jazz.

As he told CapitalBop a few months ago, his “whole career has been about bringing different sorts of visions into the music and making a stab at taking the great lessons of jazz music and broadening them into other sorts of sounds and influences and realms and cultural content.” One of the rewards of being a present-day music listener is tasting fruitful meldings like this.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.