Our roots run deep, and keep us connected to and nourished by the soil of our birth. But they also twist, tangle and intertwine while feeding our growth and evolution. With his American Roots Project, saxophonist/composer Owen Broder explores the weft and weave of American roots music - from Appalachian folk to early blues, spirituals to bluegrass - through bold and inspired new interpretations envisioned through the perspective of another distinctively American musical tradition: jazz. On the American Roots Project's debut album, Heritage, Broder combines several of modern jazz's most acclaimed composers and arrangers with an outstanding ensemble of gifted musicians to create a striking blend of tradition and innovation.
Heritage (due out March 1, 2018 through ArtistShare) calls on the talents of an impressive roster of composer/arrangers. They offer striking new twists on familiar American folk tunes as well as their own new pieces, each inspired by its creator's deeply personal take on the country's rich musical tradition. In addition to Broder, whose two originals open and close the album, there are contributions from Ryan Truesdell, founder of the celebrated Gil Evans Project, who also produced the album; Grammy-winning pianist/arranger Jim McNeely, known for his long tenure with the renowned Vanguard Jazz Orchestra; composer/arranger Bill Holman, long associated with the legendary Stan Kenton Orchestra; in-demand trumpeter/composer Alphonso Horne; and Tokyo-born bandleader/pianist Miho Hazama, whose m_unit ensemble melds big band jazz and classical chamber music.
Broder's American Roots Project interprets these remarkable pieces through the voices of an exceptional eight-piece ensemble: Broder on woodwinds; Sara Caswell, a violinist who regularly bridges the worlds of jazz and Americana; trumpeter Scott Wendholt; trombonist Nick Finzer; vibraphonist and percussionist James Shipp; pianist Frank Kimbrough; bassist Jay Anderson; and drummer Matt Wilson. On three tracks the band is joined by the transcendent vocal trio of Wendy Gilles, Kate McGarry and Vuyo Sotashe.
"It's an amazing group of people who all have great relationships with each other," Broder says. "All of these composers really brought the musicians' personalities into their writing. I think we all prefer to write for the people that are going to be playing rather than just the instruments."
That's certainly true of the bandleader himself, whose "Goin' Up Home" begins the proceedings with an entrancing, gradually expanding piece that works as an introduction to the ensemble and the concept. Sparked by the work of contemporary Americana innovators like Chris Thile, Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss, the song dawns slowly, with Caswell and Finzer intoning the folksy melody over Shipp's tick-tock pulse. As it proceeds, the song builds in complexity, layering in jazz harmonies and infectious swing rhythms. Broder just earned a 2018 Herb Albert Young Jazz Composer Award for the piece.
Hazama's first contribution, the original "Wherever the Road Leads," is a singular meld of perspectives, coming from the sole composer who doesn't share the others' American background. Taking on the role of the inspired outsider, Hazama borrows rhythmic and melodic themes from Appalachian tunes and reimagines them via a twelve-tone harmonic progression, leading to a kaleidoscopic collage of folk idioms. For her second piece, Hazama gives Gillian Welch's "I'm Not Afraid To Die" an impressionistic gloss pierced by the gorgeous melody sung by Wendholt's flugelhorn.
Hank Williams' familiar "Jambalaya," is transposed from the Crescent City to a more urban jazz environment in Bill Holman's rendition - as Broder writes, "this swinging re-imagination of the Cajun
tune has closer ties to Birth of the Cool than the streets of New Orleans." McNeely, meanwhile, drew upon his love of bluegrass music for his radical remake of the folk song "Cripple Creek," taking a narrative approach that leads the tune on an adventure through an ever-changing landscape.
Frank Kimbrough's brooding piano sets the tone for Truesdell's take on the timeless "Wayfaring Stranger," which also introduces the sublime vocal harmonies of Gilles, McGarry and Sotashe. The cleverly-titled "Brodeo" is Truesdell's version of a foot-stompin' bluegrass tune, setting the scene for a somewhat abstract rodeo. Broder, who has worked with the composer's Gil Evans Project, praises Truesdell as a bandleader, composer, and as Heritage's producer. "Ryan's a leader on a level that few others are," he says. "He's such a perfectionist and so detail-oriented, with incredibly fine-tuned ears. As a producer he was invaluable."
Horne's soaring "The People Could Fly" looks at a different side of the American odyssey, taking a piece of Bantu folk music from South Africa through the travails of slavery as it survives to find a place in the African-American church. Broder returns to conclude the album with "A Wiser Man Than Me," a looser piece that reflects the improvisational storytelling tradition through a wistful group improvisation on a simple, gospel-tinged melody.
The American Roots Project scans the history of American music and, through the inspiration that Broder finds there, discovers a new path into a profoundly personal contemporary vision. Heritage is an apt name for this moving collection, at once an inheritance and a gorgeous new link in a continually growing chain.
"The strains of American musical tradition are as deep and diverse as the lands of our forebears," Broder writes in his liner notes. "Heritage celebrates that diversity and the different backgrounds that combined to shape an American cultural identity."
Based in New York City, saxophonist/composer Owen Broder runs in a variety of musical circles as both bandleader and sideman. Broder's jazz quintet, Cowboys & Frenchmen, received critical acclaim for its 2015 release, Rodeo, and its 2017 follow-up Bluer Than You Think. Broder is a member of the Anat Cohen Tentet and has performed with internationally respected jazz artists including Ryan Truesdell's Gil Evans Project and Trio Globo; he has traveled with The Temptations and The Four Tops, and opened for Grammy Award-winner John Legend with his own soul band, Bitchin' Kitchen; in musical theater, he was a member of the pit orchestras for the German tour of Grease and the off-Broadway production For the Last Time, appeared with the band in David Bowie's Lazarus, and originated the woodwind chair in the U.S. Premier tour of The Bodyguard: The Musical. Broder holds a bachelor's degree from the Eastman School of Music and a master's from the Manhattan School of Music and recently earned a 2018 Herb Albert Young Jazz Composer Award.