Jerry Douglas - skip, hop, wobble and slide


Jerry Douglas has good news and bad news. The bad news is that there’ll be no gorilla suits worn onstage when the poet of the dobro, best known in these parts for his presiding influence on the ultra popular Transatlantic Sessions, presents his latest musical adventure at Celtic Connections.


And the good news is … there’ll be no gorilla suits worn onstage that night because even Douglas, a man with more high profile musical assignments behind him than Zsa Zsa Gabor has had hot dinner dates, can’t play music in a gorilla suit, although he once tried to play golf in one.


The story goes that, with a few hours to spare before Douglas returned the costumes he and his band mates had worn for the Skip, Hop & Wobble CD photo shoot to the dress hire shop, he and mandolinist Sam Bush decided to wear them to Bush’s golf club. When they arrived in the club house, the bartender soberly informed them, as if this must have happened without their knowledge, “Guys, you’ve got gorilla suits on.” Whereupon Douglas enquired, “Well, what do you wear to play golf in?”


Bush had wanted them to go on to the nearby grocery store after that but Douglas declined, fearing arrest on suspicion of intent to rob. Good job, too, otherwise we might not now have the prospect of Douglas bringing to Glasgow a trio featuring Omar Hakim on drums.


If you’ve never hear of Hakim, the chances are that you’ll still have heard him play – David Bowie, Sting, Madonna and Herbie Hancock are just a few of his former clients – and even if you have heard some of the records he’s played on, it’s nothing to the experience of being in the same room as him. In a rare small club appearance at Edinburgh’s Jazz Bar a few months ago, Hakim was beyond exhilarating.


“He’s amazing,” agrees Douglas, a long-time fan who drew up a wish-list of drummers he wanted to play with and says that “Omar was it, out on his own. But I thought, how are we ever going to pull that off?”


The answer was easier, far easier, than he could have imagined. Douglas’s manager happens to be the man who put together the first band Sting recorded and toured with after The Police, a team of then-young jazzers featuring Hakim alongside saxophonist Branford Marsalis, the late Kenny Kirkland on keyboards, and bass guitarist Darryl Jones. So he was a willing and able go-between. One phone call later, Douglas, his friend and bassist Viktor Krauss (older brother of bluegrass sweetheart Alison) and Hakim were set to appear on two major festivals in the U.S.


“You hear all these jokes about drummers – about the difference between a drummer and a drum machine being that you only have to punch the information into a drum machine once, and so on. Well, Omar’s not that guy,” says Douglas “He’s a musician and he’s a joy to be around as well as to play with. Having him with us lets me get the closest to being Jeff Beck I’ll ever be and there’s a certain point in the show where we turn him loose. And I just love that, when you look out and watch people’s heads turning in response to this guy who appears to have ten arms or something. A lot of the recordings Omar plays on keep him so locked into a strict pattern, so when he gets a chance to really play, look out. He’s a time-keeper but then we all are in the trio and we all get to play. It gives me a completely new outlet.”


Douglas’s fascination for his chosen instrument - an acoustic guitar with a resonator that’s generally played with a metal slide and was introduced to the bluegrass family by Lester Flatt in the 1950s - began when he was ten.


“It was a voice, as far as I was concerned,” he says. “It had this lyrical vocal quality that seemed to go beyond singing and beyond words. I sang a bit as a kid but as soon as I got hold of the dobro, I quit singing, and it was never a chore to practise. I’ve played with people who were forced to play when they were younger – Edgar Meyer from the Skip, Hop & Wobble trio is one – but now they love to play. I always loved to play, always loved the sound it made.”


His early influences were saxophonists, many of whom try to emulate the human voice in their sound and phrasing, but when he heard guitarists Duane Allman, Eric Clapton and especially Jeff Beck he heard musicians who were, he says, “really speaking my language. The sounds they made expressed feelings that words just couldn’t reach.”


Saxophonists can still motivate him. One of his favourite experiences as a busy session musician in recent times featured the former Miles Davis saxophonist Bill Evans, who is scheduled to tour Scotland with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra in May and whose work and musical knowledge as a jazz musician playing bluegrass left Douglas in awe.


“It’s so inspiring to be around great musicians,” he says, “because these guys always lift you. It’s the same with Omar Hakim – he takes you to places you’ve never been before and just playing with him allows you to discover a lot about yourself and your own playing.”


Listening to Douglas rattle off his plans for the next few months – he’s just finished the new Alison Krauss album and is about to tour with her; he has Carnegie Hall concerts with James Taylor to prepare for; he’s due to record a new album of his own in New Orleans and has another Transatlantic Sessions TV series to map out soon – it’s easy to see why the Douglas-Krauss-Hakim trio appearing in Glasgow is such a special occasion.


“We all have three or four full-time jobs, in essence, so arranging our diaries is difficult,” he says. “But the alternative – no work – doesn’t appeal much and I’m really glad the dates have worked out for the trio at Celtic Connections because I’ve been coming over for quite a while now and it’s good to bring something different to the festival.”


From The Herald, January 2011.

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