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There's been a major movement in jazz to mine the pop of the '60s and later for new songs to play alongside such standard fare as "All the Things You Are" and "Take the A Train." And there's been a minor movement to dig into old-as-the-hills tunes, from Robert Johnson's blues to spirituals to Stephen Foster and anonymous 18th century ditties.
By choosing tunes exclusively from the Book of Dylan, Jewels and Binoculars is nominally in the first movement, but often sounds like part of the second, given the creaky timelessness Dylan evokes. First-rate, cutting-edge improvisers all &mash; their collective "played with" list includes the ICP Orchestra, Muhal Richard Abrams and Van Dyke Parks; Jewels and Binoculars have been at it for eight years and three CDs, treating the music with a sort of loose, gamey playfulness.
"It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" on their latest, Ships With Tattooed Sails (Upshot), is a good example of what Michael Vatchher (drums, percussion), Lindsey Horner (bass) and Michael Moore (reeds, melodica) can do. They turn the word-spitting of the verse like an angry melody but sweeten up the chorus for contrast; Moore works himself up to a scorching growl in his solo while Horner and Vatcher cavort around him. Special guest Bill Frisell, one of the few other jazzheads to explore his inner-Zimmerman, adds his guitar.
We spoke by phone the other day from his home in New York City about such sundry topics as how this leaderless collective came together (in Europe, of all places) and the mysterious depths of Dylan.
What was the attraction of Dylan for this band?
Well, there's a lot of soul in his music. There's a lot of heart to it that we identify with. It means a lot to us. I think that was really the key. It wasn't just "let's jazz up these tunes." It was organic, really. We each had the same kind of feeling about the music and we were able to agree on it.
I think his music and his songs tap into the collective unconscious. And especially lately, his music sounds older than ever, but it's fresher than ever. Some of the things sound like rediscovered Civil War songs. He's tapped into the collective unconscious, and that's why you'll hear a phrase and it'll just fire off all kinds of memories and associations, and it'll be different ones for you than it would be for me. But they all connect somehow. In fact, there's a tune on the last Dylan record, "Someday Baby," I was just thinking about last week. "Someday Baby" is like a re-imagining of a blues tune, and there's something in it says, "I'm going to drive you from your home like I was driven from mine." That's not something you would hear in a Willie Dixon song normally. And I thought, "What does he mean by that?" And all these images started coming up reaching into my history and into American history &mash; into your history &mash; and what the power of the music is. I think that's what we're trying to tap into ourselves.
Are there things you've learned about through focusing on his music over the years?
As I was listening to "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" and I was listening to it just in amazement again &mash; just a torrent of words, a cascade of words, associations and images. And I was thinking that one of the keys is, Dylan gives no answers in his songs. He asks questions. The answer my friend, is blowin' in the wind ... but there's no answers. He never says, "We must do X" or "We must do Y" or "I'm gonna do Z." It's very open and very, I think, encompassing in that way. That's an insight I've gotten. Another is the undercurrent of the blues through his music. I think he's one of the great bluesmen of all time. That's something that I didn't quite realize, how deep that is. And you listen to his more recent stuff and it's gotten more intense ...
But you're strictly instrumentalists.
I find when I'm arranging a tune and something suggests itself, I use a big piece of score paper like what you'd use for orchestral music, and I write the words beside it, which in some cases is a lot of words. You know a tune like "It's Alright, Ma," it's a lot of words, but that fires the musical invention as it did for him. I read somewhere in an interview with him, someone asked, "Do you write the words first or do you write the music first?" And he said that's an interesting question because its' rare that they don't both come together at the same time for him. And I thought that was an interesting answer.
How did the band come together?
I was living in Belgium in the late '90s, and Michael Moore and Michael Vatcher [both from Northern California] have lived in Amsterdam since the early '80s or late '70s. I had met them both briefly over the years. I got a phone call one day, and Michael Moore just asked if I'd like to come up to Amsterdam and do some playing. In the course of that, we discovered we're both big Dylan fans. We each had done a Dylan tune on some project or other and one thing led to another.
We did our first gigs as a band late '99-early 2000. I think when we first started we didn't do all Dylan. We did a couple of my songs and a couple of Michael's songs &mash; a Monk tune or two, and then it seemed we were onto something unusual or something special with just the Dylan material. It seemed it was worth sticking with that.
With you in New York and the Michaels still in Holland, you guys get to play together about four weeks a year. Does that include hitting the folk festival circuit.
We'd like to get into more folk places. We haven't played any folk festivals. We're hard to categorize. With jazz festivals, in some settings we're too inside. A jazz festival that's used to experimental bands that sound like a burning pet shop, they're wary because we're getting too inside for them. But some festivals don't want to hear anything that it doesn't go dang-dang-a-dang.
Do you think Dylan has heard this stuff?
Big stars cover his songs all the time. I don't think a day goes by that a record isn't released with covers of a couple of his tunes. I have a feeling those higher profile things probably get more attention. We joke that we're so obscure, we're so far below the radar, that I'd be pleasantly surprised if he had heard us. But you never know. I think he has mysterious ways.
Do you have plans for your next disc?
I have to pay for this one first, but I have a few ideas. Personally, I'd like to do something with singers, which is a tall order, but I think a couple of guest singers, people who are into the idea, who themselves would be into re-imagining the songs, not just covering them, you know, kind of what we try to do instrumentally.
Jewels and Binoculars plays Thursday, April 24, to close out the Tangential Festival at Bohemian National Home, 3009 Tillman St., Detroit; 313-737-6606; $10 suggested; More info at myspace.com/bohemiannationalhome.
W. Kim Heron is Metro Times editor. Send comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.