“Phil Haynes is a well-known drummer who has performed with the creme de la creme of modern jazz stylists . . . too numerous in scope to cite here. “Free Country” fuses grassroots Americana with hip, upbeat arrangements that toggle jazz, bluegrass and country. Sterling resonance and soulful interplay . . . emit a gorgeously radiant environment. Throughout, Haynes & Free Country breathe new life into American heritage and traditionalism with this joyous and to a greater extent, ingenious and immaculately executed outing.” ~ GLENN ASTARITA www.allaboutjazz
sample: “Let It Be”
f your first reaction upon seeing the title of Phil Haynes and Free Country’s new release, Something Beatles, is to roll your eyes and exclaim, “Not those guys again!” hold that thought until you’ve given it a listen. By the time you’ve reached the end we’re sure you’ll agree that this is not your daddy’s Beatles cover record. While it’s true that countless artists working within dozens of genres have interpreted these songs over the past five decades, these compositions have never sounded like this before—and that’s really saying “something”!
Haynes, the drummer and leader of Free Country, and his three compatriots—cellist and vocalist Hank Roberts, bassist Drew Gress and guitarist Jim Yanda—bring to these ageless songs what Haynes calls “our very personal relationship to this music via John, Paul, George and Ringo’s still timely cultural offerings.” “We’ve recast their gifts through a looking glass that focuses not only on their British Invasion tradition,” says Haynes, “but also the larger pre- and post-Beatles Americana: music from our country’s earliest Revolutionary War days through Stephen Foster, gospel, blues, Hollywood soundtracks, Aaron Copland, Broadway, Coltrane and beyond.”
Perhaps the question we should be asking isn’t why the Beatles again – rather why not the Beatles again? After all, nearly every jazz artist of significance has dipped into the songs of the Great American Songbook and found new ways to approach that rich body of work. The Beatles’ music isn’t so much that tradition’s counterpart—the Great British Songbook? —But its latter-day equivalent, quite arguably the most durable and flexible catalog of popular music in history.
On Something Beatles, recorded live by John Rosenberg June 9, 2012, Haynes, Roberts, Gress and Yanda use the skeletal structures of several of the most renowned Beatles tunes—among them “Here Comes the Sun,” “Let It Be,” “Hey Jude” and the George Harrison-penned “Something”—which lends its title to this album’s own—and construct new self-standing entities from them. The melodies are never far away, always instantly recognizable, but that’s where the similarities end. Drawing on many cumulative years of improvisational skills, and feeding off of the live audience’s kinetic energy, Free Country transports the Fab Four’s material into an alternate universe. At times, as they take on lives of their own, you may even forget what song you’ve been listening to, only to be reminded again every so often by these resourceful players.
“I have the distinct honor to have found three other artists who each present an utterly fresh, personal and unique voice,” says Haynes. “Drew, Jim and Hank have clearly each rediscovered how to communicate their innate, inner-child selves— and thereby exude the values and gift that our African slave culture brought to the Americas—which jazz as a ‘folk music’ celebrates and attempts to build upon. In addition to their considerable parts, the intuitive chemistry that Free Country has always exhibited is clearly more than our sum. When you have such a unique band sound and instrumentation, plus its members have individually or collectively performed the entire tradition of Western pop music, I believe you have a distinct advantage.”
Before the quartet even launches into the Beatles material—“Mother Nature’s Son,” “Birthday” and “Revolution” are the other numbers”—they ease in by first performing two numbers from their existing repertoire, the traditional “Shenandoah” and “Mari’s Wedding.” The two opening tracks, Haynes says, “are very strong on their own, but also offered enough freshness compared to our studio recordings to earn their place on this live release.” But as strong as they are, the real fun begins when Free Country enters Beatle-land with “Mother Nature’s Son,” which began its life as a gorgeous Lennon-McCartney ballad on the Beatles’ “White Album.” Here the song exudes greater depth and even menace, Roberts’ airy, almost aloof vocal floating amidst his own cello lines, Yanda’s alternately serpentine and muscular guitar, Gress’ bass anchor and Haynes’ exploratory, unshakable drumming. Would the Beatles even have recognized this as their song? Maybe yes, maybe no, but they surely would have appreciated and applauded the freedom these virtuosos bring to it.
Not all of the songs include vocals, and that’s deliberate. Says Haynes; “Free Country was conceived as an instrumental group with occasional surprises of Hank’s vocals left resounding in the air. With material as well known as George, John and Paul’s, however, one needn’t sing all of the lyrics, as most people know them. When presenting instrumentals, especially, we invite our audience to reflect, dream and re-experience the 1960s through more of a non-literal looking glass. On the other hand, these hits were originally rendered especially captivating because of their lyrics, so it’s hard to not be seduced into reprising them. Resetting such hits in a fresh, acoustic sound-sculpted environment helps, especially when given Hank’s sensitive, engaging and reflective vocal interpretation.”
A true collaborative effort, from the choice of songs through the arrangements and on into the single-mind performances, Something Beatles is the kind of open-ended presentation that is becoming all too rare in the world of jazz, let alone other genres. “It’s all about developing an ensemble road map to pencil in,” says Haynes, “with occasional specially orchestrated sections, repeats, etc., and then deciding upon who makes sense to feature and/or where we really want to open up a particular arrangement for the whole group to jam. Such a head chart approach keeps us loose, fresh and flexible—though we frequently force ourselves to improvise a new solution out our of collective surprises!”
In fact, adds Haynes, Free Country quite often surprises itself. “We now sound a lot more like a gritty yet hip rural meets country honky-tonk/roadhouse band than we did on our first two studio recordings,” he says. “This is a good and natural thing, as this band has always reached out to a wider cross-genre listenership. And there’s nothing like an audience to interact with to make you forget about all those musical and aesthetic ‘should and shouldn’t’ rules. Instead we play more purely to the energy of the audience’s moment.”
Phil Haynes & Free Country Live:
2) Mari’s Wedding
3) Mother Nature’s Son
4) Let It Be
1) Here Comes The Sun
5) Hey Jude
Jim Yanda, guitar
Hank Roberts, cello & voice
Drew Gress, bass
Phil Haynes, drums
Recorded live by Jon Rosenberg, June 9, 2012
Arrangements by Phil Haynes & Free Country
Graphic and fine art by Nicholas Horner
Produced by Phil Haynes
Mixed, edited & mastered by Jon Rosenberg
Special thanks to Tim Bowser and his fine crew @Elk Creek Cafe & Alehouse, Milheim, PA