“What is Cowboy Jazz?” guitarist Ryan Meagher asked by way of introduction to his fascinatingly mercurial musical project of the same name. “That’s for you to decide.” The prompt required perhaps a touch more brainpower than usual for a listener on an otherwise lazy afternoon this past Sunday, but I gave it a shot.
The location of this laid-back gig—Strum, a well-appointed guitar shop on Southeast Stark with hollow-body axes and lap steels within arm’s reach of the players—and Meagher’s black Stetson suggested the simple answer: jazz interpretations of folk and country tunes. The quartet didn’t disappoint on that front with their spacious takes on Jimmy Webb’s “Highwayman” and the bluegrass standard “Short Life of Trouble.” The arrangements allowed Meagher and saxophonist Bryan Smith to get fast and loose, finding tart veins of dissonance and satiny textures within the familiar melodies.
It was the band’s original compositions that stretched “cowboy jazz” and twisted it into something far knottier and far beyond a surface level understanding of the musical concept. The rhythm section of Shao Way Wu and Jonas Oglesbee kept moving the needle from a bop swing to a sambalike shuffle—and during an extended coda to one song, Meagher slid to the highest reaches of his guitar neck to elicit squeaking tones closer in spirit to experimental electronic music.
So, no, there isn’t an easy way to explain away what Cowboy Jazz is up to musically. The quartet follows the same dusty trails already carved out by players like Sonny Rollins and Bill Frisell, who have both memorably recorded their takes on American folk and country songs. Like those musicians, Meagher and his band allows listeners to either take their name and their sound at face value or, in the pioneer spirit, join them as they explore new pathways.