Alex Graf doesn’t consider himself a great songwriter. Which is odd, because the guitar player for blue and new-grass band Tone Dog has written plenty of them, enough for his solo debut, with even more in his back pocket.
That solo debut is “Sagebrush Continuum,” an effort that is an acoustic music lover’s delight, a frenzy of folk and roots music along with high energy, fierce picking that lands somewhere between bluegrass and acoustic jazz.
Graf will celebrate the release of the record with two shows tonight (Friday) at the Indigo Room at iAM MUSIC.
Despite what he considers, on paper he is a songwriter, who like most other musicians, believes he’ll never “master” the art.
“I definitely write songs, but I still have so much to learn about the craft of songwriting,” Graf said. “There’s so much an art to being a good songwriter, and I’m lucky enough to find moments of inspiration where the songwriting things comes through and makes sense on the other end.”
Backing Graf tonight are Eli Emmitt on guitar, and Ben Debelina on bass, but backing Graf on the record are one-time local bass player Evan Suiter, along with Berklee schooled mandolin player Jacob Joliff, who agreed to be on the record after Graf casually asked him via email; they then sent tracks back and forth by email.
No matter who is on the record, or who is on stage tonight, they were all able to find that musical sweet spot where bluegrass music meshes with jazz. That’s the musical world Graf lives in.
“There are so many great musicians that have already made statements about the relationship between jazz and bluegrass – David Grisman, Tony Rice, Vassar Clements, Mike Marshall, Darol Anger, David Grier, just to name a few, and so many contemporaries who are in the business of updating that vision – Grant Gordy, Jake Eddy, Alex Hargreaves, Stash Wyslouch, the list goes on. Even if these folks aren’t explicitly making some sort of statement on jazz and bluegrass, that’s what I get from it,” Graf said. “My personal vision of the sweet spot is found in maintaining the driving groove of ‘traditional’ bluegrass while applying the freedom found in jazz improvising. The whole game is about pushing the boundary while also adhering to the boundary.”
It’s a festival-ready release. “Towpath Road” is one of the few, folkie vocal cuts, as the bulk of the record features ripping instrumentals like “Back up and Push” or “Alabama Jubilee.” It’s also a full-on do-it-yourself effort, recorded at Graf’s home.
“I recorded on high quality large diaphragm condenser mics in my bedroom and recorded it onto my iPhone. All the tracks were initially Garageband projects. These then got sent over to Jeff Jones here in Durango who did professional mixing and mastering. It was a super DIY, work with what you have type setup,” Graf said. “A string trio makes this easy. If I had drums and amplifiers, I’m not sure if this setup would have really worked. In the end I got a product that holds up sonically to some of my favorite recordings.”
For the record release shows, Graf and band will dig into the album, while also throwing out some covers. But mostly the trio of Graf, Emmitt and Debelina will be chasing down that sweet spot where bluegrass and jazz intersect.
“We’ll play almost every song off of the album, and then more. We’re playing up this hybrid jazz bluegrass thing, some pat Metheny tunes, we’re doing some standard, ripping flat picking, and singing a couple,” Graf said. “So, its going to be a diverse set of music in my mind.”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.