Dobro master Rob Ickes says jazz and bluegrass have a common thread

Rob Ickes says it was a meeting at a "Tennessee Shines" concert that led to his collaboration with the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra.

Rob Ickes says it was a meeting at a "Tennessee Shines" concert that led to his collaboration with the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra.

Be it jazz or bluegrass, dobro great Rob Ickes says it all comes down the blues. That's the most obvious tie Ickes sees in the decision to combine talents with the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra. Jazz is blues-based and bluegrass, although not as obvious, has it, too.

"That's what gives bluegrass a lot power in its emotion, that blues essence that Earl Scruggs picked up on, and fiddle players like Vassar Clements and Bobby Hicks," says Ickes. "

Ickes (whose name rhymes with "bikes") says his own chosen instrument just has it at its core.

"Josh Graves, who played with Flatt and Scruggs and was one of the first great dobro players, had that blues quality in spades. When my first solo record came out people said they liked that blues quality, but, to me, it's just in the instrument. You play with that slide and it just comes out. You can't help it."

The dobro was invented in 1928 by Slovakian immigrants John and Rudy Dopyera. The instrument is basically a guitar with raised strings and a metal plate fixed into its body to make the sound resonate. It was designed to be played with a metal bar that was slid down the neck of the instrument to make chords. And it is plucked with metal fingerpicks.

A native of the San Francisco Bay area, Ickes first fell in love with the dobro when he was 13 and heard an album by dobro master Mike Auldridge. He began taking lessons and jamming. In a few years, Ickes became one of the best dobro players on the West Coast.

He was, he says, "a bluegrass snob."

"That was all I listened to. Then you get a little older and you play more and you realize there is other cool stuff going on in other music and you widen your circle of what you enjoy."

He was a big fan of Tony Rice, who often brought up jazz greats Miles Davis and John Coltrane as influences in interviews in bluegrass magazines. That piqued Ickes' interest in jazz but it wasn't until a friend in college gave him a copy of "Kind of Blue" that he really connected.

"When I first heard it, it didn't really do much for me," says Ickes. "I thought it was kind of boring. Then I listened to it a week later and I couldn't believe it. It just killed me."

Ickes appeared on the Alison Krauss-produced album by the Cox Family, "I Know Who Holds Tomorrow," which went on to win a Grammy. In 1992, he moved to Nashville and appeared on "The Great Dobro Sessions," which also won a Grammy. In 1994, Tim Stafford invited Ickes to join the then-forming group Blue Highway. It was with that group (of which Ickes is still a member) that cemented his reputation in the bluegrass world.

He was always listening to jazz guitarists, though. And when he began recording solo albums the jazz came out. And, in 2009, Ickes enlisted East Tennessee vocalist Robinella to perform on his album "Road Song."

Two years ago when Blue Highway and Robinella were playing at WDVX's "Tennessee Shines" show, Ickes met Knoxville Jazz Orchestra leader Vance Thompson who was playing trumpet with Robinella. Thompson and Ickes made contact later, with Thompson suggesting Ickes and the KJO collaborate in concert.

"Vance and I got together to talk about material and he was looking for a night sort of like big band meets country and I was looking for something that was like take the dobro and put it in a jazz context. I think we found some common ground."

Ickes says he has always been a big fan of Ray Charles' "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music" albums.

"He took these melodies that we all know from the country world and put these big band arrangements with them. There's a lot of fertile ground to work combining those two musics."

Thompson did some arrangements of songs from Ickes' solo albums and Robinella will also perform with the group.

Ickes says he's particularly excited about the project:

"I've done a few records that delved into the jazz world, but this is the first time I've done something like this."

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