At the Cantab Lounge recently, Phil Rosenthal found himself singing into a gale-force head wind of loud conversation. It wasn’t unfriendly. Just oblivious. No cover, no minimum, hockey and soccer on the multiple TVs. But there was a crowd of 30 or so attentive listeners on folding chairs in front of the stage as Phil, his son Daniel, and their band sailed on into the clamor. “I’ll fly away,” sang Phil in his relaxed deep baritone. “When I die/ Hallelujah by and by/ I’ll fly away.” The father-son team plays a double bill with Daniel’s jazz quintet at the Lily Pad on July 7.
At a cafe in Jamaica Plain, Phil laughs when I mention the Cantab’s loud factor the day after that show. Had Phil ever sung in noisy bars with the Seldom Scene, the esteemed bluegrass band he was a part of in the ’70s and ’80s? “No, they didn’t play any bars by the time I joined the band.” In fact, Phil remembers the night he first played with them, in 1977, replacing lead singer John Starling. It was the Scene’s regular Thursday night at bluegrass mecca the Birchmere, in Alexandria, Va. Everyone wanted to check out the new guy. “You could have heard a pin drop,” Phil says. But after Phil sang his original tune “Muddy Water,” about a disastrous flood on the Shenandoah, the crowd roared. He was in. (The song, meanwhile, has since been recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and goth god Nick Cave.)
Phil headlined festival shows with the Seldom Scene until 1986, when he left to return to his hometown of Guilford, Conn., with his wife, Beth Sommers, and their children, Naomi and Daniel. Phil started pursuing his childhood dream of recording music for his own label, American Melody. He wanted to put out “family” records — something adults could enjoy but that would be accessible to children. He got established folk star Jonathan Edwards to record for the label, then others like David Mallett, John McCutcheon, and Cathy Fink. He and Sommers performed locally for children.
When Daniel turned 10, he surprised his parents by telling them he wanted to play trumpet. They worked the horn into what became the Sommers-Rosenthal Family Band, until Daniel followed the natural direction of his horn and became a jazz musician. A master’s degree at New England Conservatory followed, as well as membership in Boston’s Either/Orchestra. In 2011, Daniel released his own album, “Lines,” on American Melody. And this spring, Phil and Daniel released their first album as a team, “Fly Away,” with occasional harmony vocals from Beth and Naomi.
The natural meeting ground for jazz and bluegrass would seem to be in their displays of instrumental virtuosity (see the recent collaboration between Punch Brothers mandolinist Chris Thile and jazz pianist Brad Mehldau). But instrumental derring-do or genre “fusion” isn’t necessarily what “Fly Away” is about. There are a couple of instrumentals, including saxophone and drums, and Daniel’s trumpet is featured throughout. But mostly it’s Phil’s warm baritone voice and tight, grooving banjo that are front and center. Daniel’s trumpet offers support with its rounded tone and poised, lyrical improvisations.
“Sometimes, when it’s more virtuosic picking, [bluegrass] can be a little cold,” says Daniel. “The bluegrass people I really love are John Hartford, the stuff my dad did with the Seldom Scene, and [country singers] like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. Those guys have so much emotion and soul in their singing.”
The songs on the album offer a mix of melancholy, romantic elegy, and stoic optimism, and a bit of country church with “I’ll Fly Away.” On several tunes, Daniel supplied music for some of Phil’s long-abandoned lyrics, or set old poems or lyrics he found in anthologies — like Irish poet Louis MacNeice’s “Sunlight on the Garden,” which here gets a goth treatment, with multitracked vocals and dirty electric guitar. Daniel gave “Single Again,” from one of Carl Sandburg’s folk-song anthologies, a “Dixieland, novelty tune” treatment, with additional lyrics. And in case you’re still wondering whether it’s a kids’ album, the inclusion of the traditional murder ballad “Pretty Polly” should remove all doubt.
Daniel allows that he had to temper some of his jazz tendencies in writing songs for his father. “Sometimes I tried chords that were too weird. Phil is doing the lead singing, so he has to really know the tune well, and nail it.” Ultimately, they tried to combine singable melodies with a jazzman’s taste for unusual harmonies. Phil found another dividend in Daniel’s reworking of his old pieces. “Suddenly these songs had new melodies I never could have written myself.” They’ve also given Phil ideas for new songs. “He’s got my mind working a little different melodically. So I’d say our work together is definitely influencing me as well.” Another kind of fusion.
Reed player Jorrit Dijkstra and pianist Pandelis Karayorgis host a mini-festival for their Diff Records at the Lily Pad on July 5 with five acts: the Drum Trio of Eric Rosenthal, Curt Newton, and Luther Gray; Karayorgis’s trio with Gray and bassist Jef Charland; solo guitarist Eric Hofbauer; the quartet BOLT, with Dijkstra, Hofbauer, Rosenthal, and cellist Junko Fujiwara; and Matchbox, with Dijkstra, Karayorgis, and Newton. . . . Singer-pianist Diane Schuur pays tribute to mentors Frank Sinatra and Stan Getz at Scullers this Friday and Saturday. . . . The quintet version of percussionist Brian O’Neill’s genre-bending jazz-classical-world music “exotica” project, Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica, invades the Regattabar on July 19.