A musical trip to the Ozarks

unnamedNot only is traveling one of the great benefits of being a musician, but I find that visiting different locales gives us deeper insights into various types of music than we would otherwise have.

I’m writing this from The Springfield-Branson Airport as my weekend trip to southern Missouri comes to an end. Yesterday I played piano at the wedding of a friend and student who chose to get married near her childhood home, even though she now lives very far away. The wedding was beautiful and I had a great time playing piano and meeting some local musicians. And of course it was a real treat to experience the beauty of the Ozark Mountains firsthand!

Traveling in America yields a fascinating mix of local and generic culture. Yes, the snack shop off the highway had a different name than the New York-area stores, but still contained the same five heavily-salted brands of peanuts and cashews, with no salt-free alternative. The shop at the airport may have called itself “Route 66” but it still sold the identical stuff I can buy at JFK in New York. (Why don’t they hand-make travel cushions locally? I would have paid extra for one and it would remind me of the wonderful people of Missouri wherever in the world I eventually fly!) And of course our global culture offers us all the same variety of music via the internet.

But regional differences do present themselves, although perhaps more subtly than they would have 40 years ago. The highway billboards did advertise the now-ubiquitous McDonalds and Taco Bell “restaurants,” but also lots of bluegrass and country bands who are playing in local venues. And also the unexpected, such as a sign pointing to the National Tiger Preserve. Who would’ve known???!!! (I didn’t know we even had any national tigers! lol)

The biggest regional difference is always the trees. The Missouri landscape is totally different than the Northeast. You can put in as many fast food chains as you like, but the trees always give it away. Even Florida can’t fill their whole state with imported palm trees (much as they’d like to!).

I played piano at the ceremony and enjoyed jamming on the recessional with the wonderful singer/songwriter/pianist Emily Anderson. Later at the reception I played a few tunes and enjoyed listening to a great local band. Even though they played much the same music as many New York City groups, there was something refreshing about hearing their southern “vibe.” A different kind of energy, hard to describe without overgeneralizing. And their 3 horn players blended exquisitely!

And yes, I’ve come away with a new, deeper understanding of a recording I’ve loved since I was a teenager: The Pat Metheny Group’s “Ozark.” Check out this live version which gives a good view of pianist Lyle Mays’ hands on the keys.

Guitarist Pat Metheny and his group first became well known for their pleasant, catchy blend of jazz and rock. But Pat was originally from Missouri and as a guitarist absorbed a lot from the folk roots of the country and bluegrass music environment there. You’ll hear a lot of this in the “Ozark” video, which captures the exhilaration of scenic vistas and the majesty of the wildlife these mountains contain. And for pianists, Lyle Mays’ playing on this is a real treat! Bluegrass and folk roots, but played with a jazz sensibility.

Enjoy this great tune played by a highly influential group at the height of their powers. Let me know what you think in the comments below!

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