Just the other day, with some of the same musicians I had a discussion about Paul Gonsalves and Duke Ellington with, we ended up in an equally fascinating discussion about the relationship between bluegrass and jazz. I think it's in recent years that the two have especially shared some of the same musicians and philosophy. Bela Fleck is one of the clearest examples, but there are a lot more virtuosic musicians and bands that are influenced by one or the other.
What makes the two so similar? Or at least, what makes the two genres so enticing by the opposite respective musicians? Why was Bela Fleck interested in Jazz? Why are many jazz musicians interested in country and bluegrass? Both bluegrass and jazz include a lot of instrumental skill and the ability to improvise. Although both genres have a different vocabulary of sounds, lines and riffs, they both respect the fundamental theory of western harmony. Also, both genres create similar excitement in virtuosic display of soloing and musicianship. Traditional bluegrass is closest to traditional jazz, where both use the form of the melody to solo and the root of the solo is an embelishement of that melody. Here is an example without the need for an audio sample: when you think of someone playing "When The Saints Go Marching In" in a traditional way, you can imagine different instruments taking a turn through the melody in their own way. The same could be said for a bluegrass band playing "Cotton Eye Joe" or "Blackberry Blossom".
Although not too much has popped up in the world of jazz until now, I am certainly reminded of a few records that I constantly listen to from the Jimmy Giuffre in particular The Western Suite as well as Clifford Jordan's These Are My Roots. Here is a sample of Jimmy Giuffre playing the folk song although I could not find the any of the Western Suite on youtube.
After years of refinement and individual sound-searching in both styles, in the present there is a lot more genre mixing and hence the two are starting to come together again. Bluegrass musicians are studying classical music and fluent in bebop improvisation, and jazz musicians are reaching out to bluegrass to incorporate more folk in their music... maybe reach out to the roots of the blues and simpler harmony (note: simpler harmony does not mean it is easier to sound virtuosic on). Well without much more talking here is one group that I think is doing this:
CHRIS THILE & THE PUNCH BROTHERS
I first heard about Chris Thile in the band Nickle Creek, which started out as simply a band of prodigious kids who simply wowed everyone with what they could do. Without generalizing too much they came from the tradition of fiddle contests and the culture surrounding the bluegrass/fiddle world. Years later Chris Thile put together a band of some of the most virtuosic and versitile instrumentalists, on a bluegrass setup (mandolin, violin, banjo, guitar and bass) and has for the last five years or so been exploring everything from chamber and classical music to jazz and rock, all from the root of bluegrass. The band is called The Punch Brothers. This group is one of the main groups that could be credited with successfully crossing styles and genres from a bluegrass point of view.
Punch Brothers - The New York based group is definitely worth checking out!!!