By Jackie Morris

Crooked_Jades_Bright_LandA mesmerizing mix of primal and “cutting edge” energy, The Crooked Jades’ latest CD, Bright Land, surpasses even their critically acclaimed past six albums – sounding as if it has come straight out of the soul of “some dark holler” in Appalachia. The fact that the band – featuring founders Jeff Kazor and Lisa Berman, along with Rose Sinclair, Karen Celia Heil, Charlie Rose, and other guest artists – began at a kitchen jam in San Francisco in 1994, reflects the serious talent at play here.

Produced by Jeff Kazor, their new release is the result of a collaboration with the Kate Weare Dance Company. A boldly modern choreographer, Weare heard The Crooked Jades at a concert and was entranced by the hypnotic, haunting sound of their old-time music. She approached them with the project – to supply a musical backdrop for her troupe – and they accepted. That, in turn, led the band to reframe their repertoire…creating new arrangements to underscore the poetry, drama and mystery at the heart of each song. The result is a truly timeless recording – at once raw and sophisticated, primitive and experimental in its instrumentation, rhythms and phenomenal harmonies.

Crooked Jades - Bright Land

With the exception of three tracks, the 20 songs on Bright Land are drawn largely from their past six albums, especially The Unfortunate Rake, Vol. 1 (2000) and Vol. 2 (2003). Listening to their earlier versions of the selected songs, it is easy to hear how The Crooked Jades have evolved. Much of the fast-paced, “front porch,” dance music has taken on a darker tone. In addition to being rearranged, however, many of the selections have been greatly abbreviated – some, down to just one verse – so the result is a “normal length” album (less than 48 minutes) that moves very fast. In fact, the album is so perfectly paced, and so addictive, it always surprises me when it is over.

The selections themselves tend to be mostly obscure traditional songs – beautiful lost gems drawn from the pre-radio days of Americana roots music. Other tracks, like Unfortune, Waiting City Shining, and Black Sun, are originals by Kazor that sound so authentically old-time you would not know the difference unless you read the album notes. But all the selections feel strikingly relevant to today’s uncertain, troubled world. And songs that were anonymously penned, or handed down, in the hard, scratch-and-scrabble times of Depression in Appalachia take on a new life...in part, through the masterful use of traditional and vintage instruments.

Kate Weare on making of Bright Land

The suspended low notes of Charlie Rose’s bowed bass…the melancholy overtones of Lisa Berman’s slide guitar…and the slow, drawn-out tones of a vintage harmonium (an old keyboard instrument similar to a reed organ, that produces a continuously sustained sound) played in turn by Rose Sinclair, Kazor and Berman…all help in creating an almost mystical, moody dimension to the music. The harmonium, in particular, colors many of the selections, recalling the sound of a church organ in some country chapel at the turn of the 19th century. The result is an instant dose of “old time religion” in songs like World’s on Fire, Waiting City Shining and Moonshiner. It also serves to change the light-hearted tone created by a toy piano at the outset of Ida Red into a dark cloud of “craziness” at the end; or to infuse an inkling of dread into the end of Lucy Molen.

Still other archaic instruments recreate an “out-of-the-past” quality. From the first track, Sandy Boys opens with a Vietnamese jaw harp. Hand claps and body rhythm provide the percussion for many songs that follow, as in Uncle Rabbit – which starts out with the innocence of “patty cake” and then turns unexpectedly to a dark-as-death interlude of bowed bass….ending suddenly in apocalyptic white noise. Still another interesting effect is a provocative “slide scratch rhythm” track in New Lost Mission Blues, which punctuates this work song with a rhythmic sound akin to a saw.

Most importantly, against this unique backdrop of acoustic rhythms and sounds is some first-class picking, fiddling and singing: Jeff Kazor on vocals, guitar, harmonium and piano (as well as Vietnamese jaw harp and claps)…Lisa Berman on vocals, slide guitar, banjo, harmonium and ukulele (as well as Vietnamese jaw harp and claps)…Rose Sinclair on banjo, minstrel banjo, harmonium, and toy piano (as well as body percussion and claps)…Karen Celia Heil on fiddle and vocals…and Charlie Rose on bass, vocals, Arco bass and ukulele. Guest artists on individual songs include: Erik Pearson on slide guitar, Elise Engelberg on violin, Jennie Benford on vocals, and Bruce Kaphan on mellotron (another vintage, organ-like instrument) and bass.

As many fans of The Crooked Jades already know, each individual member of this quintet has a long, long list of impressive accomplishments, awards, honors and accolades, as epitomized by co-founders Kazor and Berman. In addition to his powerful performance as a singer and multi-instrumentalist, Jeff Kazor is a producer, musicologist and composer. He co-founded the grassroots San Francisco Bluegrass & Old-Time Festival in 1999; created the soundtrack to the award-winning PBS documentary film, Seven Sisters (2000); and produced music selected by Sean Penn for Into the Wild (2007).

In addition to haunting vocals, both as a lead singer and a celebrated harmony singer, Lisa Berman is internationally known as a pioneer in bringing the Hawaiian slide guitar back to old-time music. She also co-founded and tours with the renowned Stairwell Sisters (an all-woman string band that incorporates elements of body music and dance in their performance), and has performed at Lincoln Center, the (Hardly) Strictly Bluegrass Festival (San Francisco), and Celtic Connections Festival (Scotland), as well on Prairie Home Companion, the BBC, and Sesame Street.

Taken together, The Crooked Jades are a musical tour-de-force. And in Bright Land, they have truly outdone themselves. Fans of their music should not miss this new album. And newcomers to their music will, in all probability, become fans.

A New York transplant to the tiny town of Carpinteria, CA, Jackie is a freelance writer by profession and a singer-songwriter by passion. Her newly-released third album of original Folk/Americana songs was among Top Folk Albums of 2011 on the Folk Music Radio Airplay Charts. Jackie is also an active member in such acoustic music communities as SummerSongs, SongMakers, and FARWest Folk Alliance.