As a musician, when it comes to jazz and Americana (especially bluegrass), you essentially have to devote your life to one genre or the other because each has “its own culture to assimilate, its own improvisatory language,” says Boston-based singer David Thorne Scott.
Having played trumpet in high school, Scott decided at age 20 that jazz would be his thing, pretty much to the exclusion of everything else.
But things started to change thanks in large part to the woman who became his spouse.
“My wife is from rural Vermont, and she’s a big fan of Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss,” says Scott, who got married in 1999 at age 28.
Scott wasn’t unfamiliar with Americana before meeting his wife. Growing up in Nebraska during the 1980s listening to musical theater and pop music, Americana “kind of came in the back door,” he says, by way of driving around town with his father listening to AM radio and going to the barbershop.
After his wife reawakened the Americana already within him, Scott started to experiment at his shows, taking select material from that genre and putting it through his jazz filter.
“One of the first ones I did that way was ‘Boulder to Birmingham,’ a great Emmylou Harris tune,” he recalls. “The guys I played with dug it, and the audiences really dug it. So step by step, I realized there wasn’t as much to be afraid of as I thought.”
Being a singer and not an instrumentalist (although he does play piano) gave Scott an advantage in fusing Americana with jazz.
“If you like jazz singing and you come to one of my shows and I throw in a country tune, there’s still the voice, and there’s still the story,” says Scott, who is a professor at Berklee College of Music.
Stories abound on his new album, Thornewood, released Jan. 8. The 12-track effort contains what Scott describes as material “from the Great American Songbook, plainspoken Texas songwriters and slick film composers,” as well as some of his originals, which are “inspired musically by hard bop, lyrically by the Great Plains.”
Scott says he and his co-producer, Mark Shilansky, spent several months considering about 25 tunes before entering the studio in May 2019 to begin recording what would become Thornewood.
All of the arrangements were worked out well in advance, Scott says, except for one song: the Townes Van Zandt-written “If I Needed You.”
“When you hear Townes do it or Lyle Lovett do it or Emmylou Harris do it, it really feels like a one-sided love song, where it’s like: ‘I love you. Do you love me back? I’m not really sure if you do or not,’ ” Scott says. “It’s a beautiful song, and it’s heartbreaking in that way. So I had the idea of saying, ‘Well, what if this is a requited love song — so they both are feeling this unease?’ I thought of it as a duet, and I wracked my brain for who would be a great duet partner.”
At the top of his list was Grammy Award winner and fellow Berklee faculty member Paula Cole — and fortunately for him, “she said yes, and I didn’t have to go down to No. 2, 3 or 4,” Scott says with a laugh.
Another notable track on Thornewood is Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye.” For a while, Scott says his approach to performing Porter material was to “trick it out and make it more complex than it was.” But over time, he took the opposite approach: “If you strip everything out, it’s more effective.”
By doing that to “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” he continues, and adding a guitar and simplifying the chord changes, “I can trick [people who think they don’t like jazz] into liking this Cole Porter song.”
— By Chris M. Junior