Crooked Jades - drawing attention to the fire


So much for youthful rebellion. When Jeff Kazor formed the band of his dreams in San Francisco in the early 1990s, it wasn’t the music of his own generation he had in mind. It was the old tunes of Virginia and Kentucky Kazor had learned from his father that inspired the Crooked Jades.


A dozen years and a few changes in personnel on, the Crooked Jades remain on a mission: to make the music of pre-radio America relevant to the audiences of 2006.


"We’re not playing music that’s frozen in time," says Kazor. "The songs people sang back in the early part of the twentieth century were full of trouble and strife, but despite all the material advances we’ve made since then, things aren’t all that much better now. It’s impossible to live in a bubble and feel safe in the world right now, so while we play old-time music, we’re still reflecting what’s happening in the world today."


All through high school and college Kazor was, he says, a typical teenager of the 1980s. He listened to the Clash, the Cure and Depeche Mode, but when he left college he found the popular music of the day less and less interesting.


"The so-called alternative, grunge thing of the early 1990s just didn’t do it for me," he says. "I actually found the traditional music of Appalachia more alternative. All these songs of doom and gloom and hardship were really simple and close to the heart, and they really just spoke to me."


Kazor had learned to play guitar by accompanying his father, who as a boy tuned into a radio station broadcasting out of West Virginia up on the family farm in Saskatchewan and taught himself to play harmonica by playing along to bluegrass music.


"He had a big repertoire of these fiddle tunes. But just as important, he had some really cool vinyl albums by people like the Watson Family and I know, we’re not supposed to like our dad’s music, but I couldn’t get enough of them when I was growing up and they’ve stayed with me."


The Crooked Jades grew out of meeting like-minded musicians at the old-time music camps that are found all over the U.S. and they were well placed to take advantage of the surge of interest in old-time and bluegrass music that the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? inspired.


"That popularity certainly didn’t hurt us and we were happy to ride that wave," says Kazor. "But what’s been really interesting is that the O Brother wave has come and gone but there’s another wave of interest in American roots music right now. I don’t have any great explanation for this, aside perhaps from kids looking for music that means something specific to them, but I see it happening in the UK and Europe, too. And that’s great."


As well as drawing on his father’s record collection, Kazor has done a lot of research into the Kentucky and Virginia traditions. For the Crooked Jades’ 2000 album Seven Sisters, actually a soundtrack to a documentary film about real rural siblings migrating to the big city, he went back to the source, talking with and listening to singers who had learned songs as children in the 1920s.


"That was amazing and it really reinforced the point that this music is a living tradition," he says. "Of course, with Seven Sisters and what we’re doing now, it’s not about trying to be true Appalachians because we can’t be - we’re city kids. It’s about putting our own spin on this old music."


That spin has brought suggestions that the Crooked Jades’ influences extend to composers such as Steve Reich, Phillip Glass and John Adams and while Kazor doesn’t go out of his way to listen to their music, he can see how people might make the connection.


"I’ve been involved in jam sessions at music camps where you have three or four fiddles, a couple of banjos, guitar, mandolin and ukulele and the players are just learning a tune. So it gets repeated over and over and it does become hypnotic, like those composers’ music. Our music can have that same quality, with the bowed bass and so on, so although we don’t go for that connection intentionally, if it attracts people who wouldn’t normally listen to us, that’s fine by me."


Not that the Crooked Jades – the name reflects the presence of beauty in imperfection – need this kind of leg-up. Their live performances, full of soulful songs, haunting ballads, fiery tunes and old-time charm have earned them the reputation at home as the top bluegrass attraction and over here taste-makers including Andy Kershaw and Bob Harris are getting behind their new album, World’s On Fire.


"World’s On Fire itself is a great example of an old song having the same relevance today as it did when it was written," says Kazor. "We didn’t pick it to be alarmist or anything. We really just wanted to say to people, especially in America, Hey, look what’s going on. It’s time to wake up."


From The Herald, July 5, 2006


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