Rob Ickes,
What It Is
(Rounder, 2002)

What it is, is jazz. Those who are expecting to hear bluegrass as a result of Ickes' long affiliation with Blue Highway may be disappointed, but those with open ears willing to listen to something different will be thrilled.

As jazz multi-instrumentalist Paul McCandless says on the back cover blurb, "The Dobro is one of the most vocal and expressive of stringed instruments," and Ickes makes it sing here. The sound is indeed almost like a vocal album. Ickes is joined by Derek Jones on bass, Paul Hanson on saxes and bassoon, John R. Burr on piano and organ, and Kendrick Freeman on drums. There's nary a banjer in sight, but there's a ton of good music. From the spirited first track, "Mr. Goodbar," we're in jazz territory, with a deep groove and a nice hook. It's an Ickes original, as are six of the eleven tracks here. "Scheerhorn Shuffle" showcases Ickes on a Scheerhorn resophonic, and it has a stealthy lead line that ends up in a Latin vibe.

Next is a gorgeous version of Mike Manieri's "Self Portrait," which amazingly enough joins the word "Dobro" with "elegance." Organ and sax take center stage at the start of the bluesy "Stanford and Son," making way for Ickes' deep, dark Dobro voicings. He's really in the pocket here, and Hanson matches him note for note. John Scofield's "I'll Take Les" is a real rocker, while Ickes' "Killeen" sets a haunting mood of solitude and quiet, with a hint of desperation. The band is back in a funky groove with Hanson's "Juke Joint," showing off Freeman's skilful drumming. "Blues for Sammy" is a good argument for making the Dobro the official instrument of the blues -- nothing else wails quite like this.

"When We Were Leaving" is slow, tender, evocative and wistful, a fine compositional collaboration between Ickes and bassist Jones. The band really swings with "Union Pacific," in which Burr's superb piano work gets nicely showcased. The album ends with "50 Years Ago," as close we get to a more traditional Dobro sound. It's got an old-time mountain feel to it that reminds us at the end of the Dobro's roots.

There have been Dobro players who have flirted with jazz before, like Jerry Douglas and Mike Auldridge, but unless I missed something, Ickes seems to be the first to fully take the instrument into a pure jazz setting, with a traditional rhythm section (plus horn). This is far beyond what's called new acoustic music, though fans of that genre -- and of jazz in general -- should eat this up. Rob Ickes provides a new and original voice in jazz, something that's been missing from the music for too long. It makes you wonder why no one ever thought of this before, but now that Ickes has added this marvelous and expressive instrument to the world of jazz, I hope we''ll be hearing much more of it.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 30 May 2002

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