Leftover Salmon plays Aspen
ASPEN – Greg Garrison has been through a lot – a lot of musical stages, that is. As a kid in Arlington Heights, a Chicago suburb, he was “similar to a lot of suburban kids, listening to whatever was on the radio” – not a pretty thought, considering what came over the airwaves in the 1980s, the core of his childhood. An aspiring bassist, he developed a preference for Rush and Iron Maiden – “angsty, teenager music, but that had interesting bass stuff.” Garrison then had a “flirtation with the metal and skate-punk that all the boys like.”In high school he made a dramatic turn, playing in school orchestras and bands, and getting deep into jazz. “I was pretty heavy into Miles, Coltrane,” Garrison said. At the same time, he went through his “Phish/Grateful Dead phase,” and played in a noodling trio, Organic Advisor (“a pretty good name for a jam band, even by today’s standards,” Garrison noted), and a group, the Mighty Pranksters, that covered the Dead, the Band and the Allman Brothers. At the University of Illinois, he studied classical music.It’s sort of appropriate, then, that Garrison landed in Leftover Salmon. The Colorado-based band began as a mash-up: It was formed when Vince Herman orchestrated a farcical collision between his band, the Salmon Spankers, and the newgrass group, the Left Hand String Band, onstage during the 1989 Telluride Bluegrass Band Competition. The collection placed well out of the running in the competition, but the craziness spawned Leftover Salmon, a band that mashed together bluegrass, rock, country, zydeco and more in a fusion they dubbed “polyethnic Cajun slamgrass.””That’s part of what’s made it fun for me to play in that band – Cajun and country and rock,” the 36-year-old Garrison, who joined Leftover Salmon in 2000, said from a car wash in Boulder. “And improvising – not like a jazz band, but in a Grateful Dead or bluegrass way. They’re pulling from a deep well of influences, whether it’s John Hartford or Taj Mahal.”Garrison – who appears in Aspen on Sunday, Feb. 27, when Leftover Salmon makes its Belly Up debut, its first club gig in the area in a decade or so – has taken that interest in blending musical styles to a different level. He is working on his doctorate at CU Boulder’s jazz department, but his field is one that might have some of his colleagues perplexed. Garrison is exploring the intersection where jazz – music with roots in black, urban America – meets bluegrass, country and folk – the style of white, rural America. “It’s the music in the cracks,” Garrison said. Those cracks have gotten a good bit of sunlight in recent years. Garrison mentions guitarist Bill Frisell, who is generally categorized as a jazz player, but whose breakthrough album was 1997’s “Nashville,” a country-tinged record that earned album of the year honors from the jazz magazine, Down Beat. He brings up bassist Edgar Meyer and banjoist Bla Fleck, both bluegrass stars who have become respected figures in classical concert halls. (Meyer is a revered figure at the Aspen Music School, where he is a faculty member.) Among Garrison’s bass idols is Charlie Haden, a jazz figure who made a 2008 country-folk album, “Rambling Boy,” with members of his family.But while musicians expose the nearness of different styles, Garrison believes the jazz-folk intersection has been badly overlooked in academia. “It’s not necessarily reflected in what people are learning in schools now,” he said. Garrison added that the phenomenon of crossing folk styles with jazz is not just a recent development. He points to “Tennessee Firebird,” a mid-’60s album by jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton that featured the bluegrass duo, the Osborne Brothers; and the fact that Louis Armstrong’s final album – titled “Louis ‘Country and Western’ Armstrong'” – featured interpretations of country hits.”Nobody talks about those being a significant element,” Garrison said. “The world I’ve been living in is the university jazz setting, and [the crossing over of jazz and folk] definitely doesn’t live there at all. Among the students, there’s a respect for Edgar, Bla. But you take a history class, and they don’t go past 1966.”But Garrison lives in that intersection. Before joining Leftover Salmon, he played in the Motet, a Colorado group that merged jazz with Afro-Cuban and funk styles. He works extensively with Ron Miles, a prominent trumpeter on the Denver jazz scene. He has started a concert series at the Denver jazz club Dazzle, where the focus is on combos that blend jazz and bluegrass.”I know from my own experience, all of this is coming from the same place,” Garrison said of the styles that interest him. “I want to understand that, and I want other people to understand that. I want all improvised American music styles to exist on the same pedestal.”••••In Leftover Salmon, Garrison has had an excellent living platform to study his thesis. The band – originally led by banjoist Mark Vann; Drew Emmitt, a master of numerous string instruments; and Herman, a wildly theatrical guitarist – might have made a shambles of the 1989 Telluride band contest. But it tasted great to audiences. Leftover became a fan favorite at festivals such as Telluride Bluegrass and High Sierra in California and toured extensively. Their recording career was crowned by 1999’s “Nashville Sessions,” an album that had the band joined by guests from bluegrass and country (Earl Scruggs, Bla Fleck, Waylon Jennings) and rock (Widespread Panic’s John Bell, Todd Park Mohr of Big Head Todd and the Monsters).In 2002, Vann died of cancer. But the band carried on as a full-time unit for a few years.”Vince and Drew wanted to carry on for Mark’s legacy,” Garrison, who replaced the original bassist, Tye North, in 2000. “And there were a lot of people working for the band at that point.”But the death not only knocked the individual members for a loop, it also disturbed a precarious balance between Herman’s onstage antics and Emmitt’s more sober-minded focus on musicianship. “That’s been something between them, a big part of the dynamic that drove the band,” Garrison said. “The young guys were trying to establish ourselves and leave our mark, and that could be frustrating. But what has always worked in Leftover Salmon is the energy that Vince and Drew bring – not necessarily fighting, but the stuff that goes on when you’re a band: Who’s the leader? And what’s the band all about?”In 2004, Noam Pikelny, who had replaced Vann on banjo, left Leftover Salmon to join the John Cowan Band. His exit, Garrison said, signaled “time to step back and assess the situation.” They decided to disband – “a delayed reaction to Mark Vann’s passing,” as Garrison called it. “It was sad we couldn’t keep it going. But it was the right decision.”For three years, Garrison believed that the fork had been stuck in Leftover Salmon. He toured with Emmitt’s band, and he also formed a relationship with Chris Thile, the mandolin wizard whose style mixed bluegrass and classical, structured segments and improvisation. Garrison played on Thile’s 2006 Grammy-nominated album “How to Grow a Woman From the Ground,” and when Thile soon after formed the string quintet Punch Brothers, Garrison was the bassist. The group’s debut album, “Punch,” featured a four-movement, 40-minute suite, “The Blind Leaving the Blind.”Alongside Punch Brothers, Leftover Salmon was starting to stir again. In 2007, they returned with a handful of dates, including an appearance at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival. While side projects have become increasingly prominent – Emmitt is part of the Emmitt-Nershi Band, with String Cheese Incident guitarist Billy Nershi; and Herman fronts Great American Taxi – Leftover Salmon has played at least a few gigs every year since regrouping. (Their last local appearance was at the 2009 Chili Pepper & Brewfest in Snowmass Village.)The band is in the middle of a five-show run through the mountains – “the first time we’re on a bus together since 2004,” Garrison noted – and it might signal greater activity for the band. Garrison said there is talk of going into the studio next year; if an album results, it would be the band’s first since a self-titled 2004 release.”We’re conscious about not wanting to be a nostalgia band. We want to be producing something musically,” he said.Garrison is producing something. His first solo CD, the folk-oriented “Low Lonesome,” is due for release next month. The album features trumpeter Miles and keyboardist Erik Deutsch. Garrison believes his time in Punch Brothers – he was replaced late in 2008 by Paul Kowert – played a bigger part in his decision to study the interplay between jazz and folk music than Leftover Salmon. But his membership in Leftover has also given him his particular perspective on music.”It’s allowed me to be an eclectic musician,” he said. “It’s an environment that let me work on everything I was into.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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