Peter Calo is known as both a jazz performer and session man, but on Cowboy Song ("Contemporary Arrangements of Songs From the American West") he turns his attention to traditional songs of the American frontier. The liner notes explain that the artist was inspired by the composition "Red River Valley," with its theme of parted lovers. Calo found many of these tunes in a book published in 1910 by University of Texas professor John Lomax, as well as in poet Carl Sandburg's collection The American Songbag. What he's created is an extraordinary 13-track collection of new interpretations of timeless melodies. Both ambitious and commendable, the artist flavors these renditions with his impeccable timing, sparse but eloquent instrumentation, and a sense of adventure. "Shenandoah" starts the album off, followed by a medley of "I Ride an Ol' Paint"/"St. James Infirmary." These are the performances with the most jazz influence, but things get decidedly more Old West with "A Cowboy's Lament," featuring Antoine Silverman's very nice violin work. Calo essays his thoughts on much of the material in the liner notes, and the eight-page booklet is very detailed. The musicians attack this material as if it is their own, and that's the beauty of Cowboy Song -- sincere reworking of music, much of which came from a time before tape recorders. In probably the same fashion as classical music has floated down the rivers of time, so too "Red River Valley" is reborn with cello, violin, and Calo's acoustic guitar. "The Old Chisholm Trail" gets a slinky, eerie treatment, with Mike Harvey's vocals and what sounds like wah-wah meets slide guitar. The guitarist calls these "songs of the cowboys, the way I hear them now," and his vision is itself as exciting a find as the old sheet music that inspired him. The almost instrumental of Hank Williams "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" is a far cry from B.J. Thomas. Mike Harvey adds only dashes of vocal sound, blending it in with the electric guitars and violin. "Home on the Range" plays like Jimi Hendrix doing an acoustic version of his classic "Star Spangled Banner," while Calo's jazz roots invade the country picking of "Oh, Dem Golden Slippers." "The Streets of Laredo," "Yellow Rose of Texas," "Jesse James," and other selections get the treatment, and it is most enjoyable. There are lyrics to nine of the songs and even a bibliography. A really different kind of project worthy of attention.
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AllMusic Review by Joe Viglione