Jerry Douglas is one of the world's most beloved musicians, and he became one the hard way: He's pushed through every boundary facing him, thwarted all expectations along the way, and practiced a work ethic that is staggering -- he has played on over 2,000 albums as a session player or leader. The Jerry Douglas Band is a three-year-old virtuoso septet that includes electric guitar (Mike Seal) drums (Doug Belote), horns (Jamel Mitchell and Vance Thompson on saxophone and trumpet, respectively), fiddle (Christian Sedelmyer), and bass (Daniel Kimbro), alongside his Dobro and lap steel. As a unit they careen across jazz, rock, bluegrass, folk, blues, and R&B with abandon.
The program includes radical revisitations of tunes from Douglas' past along with new tunes. The material is bracing and aggressive; it showcases the various strengths of this collective's interplay as well as the solo prowess of its membership.
Opener "Cave Bop" originally appeared on 2002's Lookout for Hope, a newgrass session. Here, there's more bop than progressive bluegrass, with gospelized R&B horns in the codas, fiery Dobro soloing, swinging bass, and drums that support the trumpet and electric guitar solos. What If marks the third time Douglas has recorded Edgar Meyer's "Unfolding." The first was in the '80s on a Strength in Numbers album (Meyer, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, and Douglas); the next was on 2008's Glide. Each time, the tune offered something more, but it's never sounded like this. Post-bop and blues collide with newgrass and swirl together at a blinding speed to become something new -- solos by Kimbro and Sedelmyer open a window for Mitchell to offer his best Sonny Rollins blowing. The cover of Tom Waits' "2:19" is a steamy, swinging, jump blues with Douglas' late-night vocal growl amid stinging lead guitars, honking saxophones, and backing harmony chorus. Douglas first covered Billy Roberts' "Hey Joe" on 1992's Slide Rule, but it didn't sound anything like this choogler. Tight flatpicked dobro, squalling fiddle, ripping electric guitar, and double-timed drums cook right out in front of the souled-out horns. "Freemantle" combines the Allman Brothers' gift for transcendent string turnarounds with R&B and gospel choruses by the horns. "The Last Wild Moor" is where Celtic balladry and lonesome country soul mingle together in a lovely reverie before the set winds out. Closer "Hot Country 845" weaves together western swing, roots rock, and honky tonk two-step. While the playing is fantastic throughout, what really sets this cooking session apart is the way Douglas arranges. He not only makes the most of his players' instrumental skills, but also paints these tunes as vehicles for canny improvisation and group interplay. What If is another high-water mark in a catalog full of them.