A favorite son of Portland’s jazz community who left for New York not long ago, Jeff Picker has put down roots in Tennessee. The double-bass prodigy recently married longtime girlfriend and Grammy-winning Americana songbird Sarah Jaraosz, formally joined the all-star roster of next-gen phenoms East Nash Grass, and landed a touring gig with progressive bluegrass-bloods Nickel Creek.
Speaking to WW outside a local luthier, Picker—who can be heard on East Nash Grass’ buzz-steeped new album, Last Chance to Win, which is out now—talked over his recent career upswing, as well as the peculiar annoyances of a life spent tethered to that most unwieldy of instruments, the bass.
“Getting weird looks showing up places with the bass has been a constant my entire life. Starting out, I’d take any opportunity to play, and I found myself in a few situations,” Picker laughs. “At this point, I don’t even take the bass out of the house unless there’s a paycheck involved.”
WW: You’re from Portland?
Jeff Picker: I moved to New York at 18, but Portland feels like home. My family’s still there, and that’s where I discovered music and launched my career.
In seventh grade—so, [when I had] passion for music but hardly any skill—I went to this arts and communication magnet academy in Beaverton. The band director there, Thara Memory, introduced me to jazz, and he brought in all kinds of different people from town as artists in residence.
Randy Porter, to this day one of the best musicians I’ve had the chance to play with, started calling me for standards gigs at the Heathman. Obo Addy, this Ghanaian master drummer, had moved to Oregon to set up a cultural organization and Afropop-style group, and I got to play with him around the northwest. So, early seventh grade, I was exposed to jazz just learning from these guys. And, by 15 to 16, I was playing professionally—great way for a young bass player to cut his teeth.
The bluegrass started later on?
As a little kid in Texas, I was sort of enamored with country music, and the early ‘90s was a fun time for that—Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Patty Loveless, Reba…there was this mainstream explosion I liked as a boy, but then that lay dormant for 10 years or so.
Then, moving to New York for jazz, I discovered string band music, and the roots Americana world kind of scratched an itch for me. It filled a bit of the void I was feeling in jazz, and, playing gigs around New York, I started to really dig into it, branching out with some touring acts and nationally known people. I just became part of that scene, and the rest is history. Ever since I was 23, my main source of professional activity has been the string band world.
How’d you get affiliated with East Nash Grass?
I moved to Nashville and was just freelancing session work when I met the guys and girls of East Nash sort of organically through the scene. There’s the bar in East Nashville where they’d play, where we’d play when I was in town, and I always got a kick out of them. They’re great players, very steeped in the traditional bluegrass style that I love, and they make me laugh. I’d sub in sometimes and kind of hang around. We got along as friends and clearly had similar rhythmic sensibilities.
Right now we’re just following the muse, you know? Doing what we do and seeing where it takes us. About half the [new] record’s purely original music and half’s covers but, you know, obscure—adapted from other styles or things. There’s an old blues song called “Papa’s on the House Top” from the ‘30s, so it’s not original in the truest sense, but it’s new in the bluegrass vernacular, if you know what I mean?
You have your own band, too?
I’ve put out two records under my own name that are all original instrumentals. In the future, my plan’s at least 10 to 15 gigs a year with my own band. I’d say my music has bluegrass sensibilities and some jazz intrigue but doesn’t stray too far from the front porch. That’s kind of my boilerplate, there.
Any thoughts on including vocals, veering more mainstream?
Probably not. I do sing a little bit in our show to give some dynamism, but I stay focused on the compositions and improvisation. You know, I get a ton of that type of thing working as a hired musician. I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by the best singers in the world—including my wife—so I think the best I can offer as a composer and bandleader is in the instrumental realm.