In the late 1940s through the ’50s, a style of American jazz music emerged that came to be know as cool jazz, characterized by more restrained and subtle soloing, and less hectic arrangements than the be-bop era that had preceded it. All the elements of jazz were present – improvisation, complex harmony, adventurous melodies – but absent the hard edges and somewhat frantic sound of be-bop.
Artists like Miles Davis, who had been a bop guy himself, carried the cool jazz torch, as did others like Dave Brubeck, John Lewis, and George Shearing who recorded in this more accessible jazz idiom, finding tremendous commercial success during the audiophile boom in the 1950s and ’60s.
I thought of cool jazz this week listening to Unbound, the new release from Kenny & Amanda Smith on their Farm Boy Records label. It’s almost the exact approach they take, smoothing all the rough edges on their decidedly bluegrass style, producing a subdued, calm-and-calming sound 180 degrees out from the equally charming vibe of The Stanley Brothers or Bill Monroe.
But unlike most “bluegrass for people who don’t like bluegrass,” it retains all the virtuosity, rhythmic precision, and intrepid spirit that we’ve all come to expect from contemporary bluegrass, without the anemic, “sad girl with guitar” despond that gums up so much modern acoustic music.
In short, Unbound is a brilliant recording. It finds Amanda Smith’s captivating voice supported by her husband Kenny, and his understated but powerful guitar on 13 finely-crafted, carefully-chosen new songs. All of the singing is lovely – Amanda’s leads are enthralling, with her tone fully covered, and never blaring – and ethereal three-part harmony provided by Kenny and Wayne Winkle. All the songs were cut with what is essentially their road band, Jacob Burleson on mandolin, and Justin Jenkins on banjo, with Kyle Perkins on bass.
The opening track, You Know That I Would, which has been dominating our Bluegrass Today Weekly Airplay chart this past few weeks, sets the tone for the project. Starting with an easygoing guitar strum and a mandolin chop, Amanda’s voice quickly comes in with Ed Williams’ lyrics about the sort of deep and abiding love that makes you long to do everything in your power to make your beloved as happy and fulfilled as possible. Everything is low key, and sumptuous.
Dennis K Duff, who has written several for Darin & Brooke Aldridge, contributes a pair of moving songs that shine with the Kenny & Amanda treatment. The title track is his, along with perhaps the album’s most memorable song, Hills Of Logan County, written with Lisa Shaffer. It’s a Civil War ballad about young lovers separated by the fighting. From the start, you get the feeling that this will be a desperately sad story, which it is, but with a twist in the final verse. There’s a special knack to creating a sorrowful number that is starkly beautiful at the same time, and both Dennis and Lisa, and Kenny and Amanda, pull it off here.
Other strong songs include Something’s Missing from Sally Barris, and Reaching Out from Elli Lowe, both looks at lost or nearly-lost love, and I Don’t Want To Fall from Mark Morton and Jimmy Alan Stewart, a reflection on the fear we feel when realizing that love is working on our heart. The vocals on this last are so delicate and light, it sounds like they’re barely breathing.
Special credit goes to the Smiths for finding a Gordon Lightfoot song suitable for a bluegrass arrangement not yet recorded by Tony Rice. Wherefore And Why first appeared on Lightfoot’s 1968 album, Did She Mention My Name, and it gets a sprightly grassification from this talented duo and their crack band. Listen closely to the vocals in the final chorus.
Kenny also gets to sing a couple on Unbound, Barry Bales and Craig Market’s Preaching My Own Funeral, and Tea Party, performed with just voices and guitar, a song by Roger Helton about the joys of raising a baby girl, which has been these two’s occupation this past year.
So do we dub Kenny & Amanda Smith the progenitors of cool grass? Not sure that needs to be done, but there’s no doubt that they are pioneering they own kind of bluegrass, with a smooth, controlled sound that really sets them apart.
You’ll want this one in your collection.