For more than three decades, Jerry Douglas and Béla Fleck have forged broad-minded profiles for instruments previously viewed as exclusive property of bluegrass music. On their respective new albums, such stylistic exploration continues with music that is fresh, playful and unexpected.
Douglas' Traveler offers true musical emancipation for the slide-driven sounds of the dobro. Admittedly, just about any album Douglas has put his name to offers some new framework for the instrument. But Traveler transports the dobro and a few other stringed devices to new geographic and stylistic ports.
High Blood Pressure, for instance, takes Douglas to New Orleans, where a majestic piano processional from Dr. John rolls out the red carpet for a sleepy, brassy jam accented by conversational vocals from Keb' Mo'. Douglas' weapon of choice here isn't the dobro but the sweaty, electric phrasing of lap steel guitar. But the dobro gets its say during an equally funky arrangement of the Leadbelly chestnut On a Monday, where Douglas also offers a serviceable vocal lead that makes the whole excursion sound like latter-day Little Feat.
The guest list gets heavier from there. Mumford & Sons play up the pathos on Paul Simon's The Boxer, with help from Simon himself, while Douglas' steadiest employers of late, Alison Krauss and Union Station, set aglow the plaintive Frozen Fields.
For all the high-profile help, though, Traveler's highlight is a soulful solo dobro medley of Simon's American Tune and the Chick Corea staple Spain. For five minutes, one is left spellbound by the depth of the dobro's emotive tone and the pure ingenuity of Douglas' musicianship.
Banjo great Fleck opts for the more contained company of the Marcus Roberts Trio and a setting devoted exclusively to acoustic jazz on the summery Across the Imaginary Divide.
A one-time protégé of Wynton Marsalis, Roberts long ago proved himself a player of great compositional and interpretative resources. On Divide, that makes for lot of playful sparring, although the resulting music has a wonderful lightness.
The album-opening Some Roads Lead Home operates around an almost countryesque swagger before the tune blooms into expert swing. The rest of the album is just as stately and inventive, from the bright bop phrasing of The Sunshine and the Moonlight to the strong accents of Stevie Wonder-esque pop that bubble under One Blue Truth.
Longtime personal and professional friends, Douglas and Fleck also team on one of Traveler's many delights, Gone to Fortingall, an instrumental rooted in Celtic fancy but draped with elements Eastern and African intrigue. What a fitting destination for these veteran bluegrass journeymen.