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Jonesin' for Jazz

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Kim Thiel
Staci Griesbach

I heard a lot of country music while growing up in South Dakota. Not only were country songs all over the radio and television shows like Hee-Haw, but I also dug into my mom’s collection of classic country records and enjoyed them almost as much as my dad’s jazz albums. Although jazz and country are two very different genres of music with their own unique traditions, forms, and history, they’re both deeply rooted in the American cultural experience. I’m always intrigued by jazz artists who find new ways of interpreting country songs, like Ray Charles on the classic Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music and guitarist John Scofield on his 2016 album Country for Old Men.

L.A.-based vocalist Staci Griesbach also considers jazz and country as American musical treasures and specializes in reinterpreting country music from a jazz perspective. She was raised on a working farm in Wisconsin and although she played in her school’s jazz bands and sang in the jazz choirs, she says country music was “the roots of my raising.” It was later in life that she really got into jazz and soaked it up like a sponge. Over the past couple years, she’s combined her love of jazz and country with a pair of albums reshaping songs made famous by the legendary Patsy Cline and the best-selling country star Shania Twain. For her latest album, My George Jones Songbook, Griesbach tackles 14 songs from the catalog of one of country music’s most legendary artists.

Griesbach says reimagining songs from the country canon and fitting them in a jazz helped her find her own unique, authentic voice.

“While I was out here in LA gigging and doing Great American Popular Songbook standards, I kind of felt a little bit bare,” she says. “I’d come home from a gig and I felt like I hadn’t found that connection I was looking for. And one day I came home and I put on a Patsy Cline album and it was like a light bulb went off. At the time I was doing an Ella Fitzgerald tribute and I started thinking to myself, ‘wait a minute, isn’t Patsy Cline kind of like the Ella Fitzgerald of country music?’ And I thought maybe I could look at Patsy Cline’s catalog. And so that kind of started this whole path that I’ve been walking, which is taking a look at what I call another great American popular songbook.”

To help develop her interpretations of George Jones’ songs, Griesbach enlisted the help of some top LA musicians, a few of whom also worked on her Patsy Cline and Shania Twain albums. They include pianists Jeremy Siskind, Tamir Hendelman, Otmaro Ruiz and saxophonist Rahsaan Barber who all wrote the album’s arrangements.

“The way I work is I pull together an overarching view of what an album is going to look like and then I go song by song and have a road map created of what I’m looking for in the tune,” she explains. “And then I’ll sit down with the arranger and have that dialogue. But then it’s really their prowess. They’re such incredible musicians and they’re the ones that help me take my vision and put it down onto paper. Without them I wouldn’t be able to sing these beautiful tunes.”

Country music has a rich tradition of heartbreaking ballads and few singers can rip your heart out with tales of divorce, cheating and lost love as fully as George Jones does on classic records like “The Grand Tour,” “A Picture of You Without Me,” and “A Good Year for the Roses,” which are among the Jones hits Griesbach sings on her new album.

“One of the things Jones embodies is this ability to tell a story and draw us in,” she says. “[In his autobiography] he writes that he really wanted to sing ballads. When he was young, rockabilly and rock and roll was starting and Elvis Presley was coming up. And everybody wanted something a little bit more rockin’. And he really loved ballads. And country music is about storytelling and I think that’s what keeps me grounded in it; the art of communicating through performance and music. That’s so beautiful in a story that is relatable.”

The album also includes an interpretation of George Jones’ 1980 hit, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” It’s one of the saddest country songs ever and a record that still chokes me up, even after hearing it at least a hundred times. Griesbach’s version also brings the tears with a sparse arrangement featuring Jeremy Siskind’s wistful piano and Artyom Manukyan’s plaintive cello.

“This was the first song on the album Jeremy and I started working on,” Griesbach says. “When I started rehearsing this one, just singing and trying to figure out my own best interpretation was hard. Once I hit that first chorus, if I didn’t have a tissue box handy, I was in trouble.”

My George Jones Songbook isn’t all downcast. There’s a gentle bossa nova interpretation of “Walk Through This World with Me”; a funky, brassy take on Jones’ hit with ex-wife Tammy Wynette, “Golden Ring”; and a playful version of one of Jones’ first hits, “White Lightning.” But Griesbach says there’s still something special about his heartbreaking ballads.

“There’s a lot of variation on My George Jones Songbook. I tried to showcase as much possible how his songbook could be interpreted in so many different ways, and still maintain the storyline of what he and the songwriters created. But I think there is a beauty in listening to a song with a really poignant message that makes you feel something. Especially now in the pandemic and we’re all just a little raw. I think sometimes having that good cry listening to a song and reflecting on what you’re feeling is a beautiful thing.”

But even as Griesbach finds new ways of interpreting county music, she continues singing standards from the Great American Songbook. This summer she launched “the Songbook Singles,” a new series of digitally available performances.

“I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that I love singing the Great American Songbook,” she says. “The series of songbook singles allows me the opportunity to release a single that’s then a part of my American songbook. It could be a Great American Songbook standard, it could be something from Carole King or Linda Ronstadt or another 20th Century American artist. But for the most part right now I’m really focused keeping the Great American Songbook vibe going.”

While Griesbach loves singing the great songs of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Johnny Mercer and the other great composers and lyricists, she admits that it can be overwhelming singing songs that have already been reimagined countless times. She says singing country music gives her the freedom to do something distinctive by taking the same approach as jazz musicians do with standards.

“Unlike in country music, jazz brings the sense of reimaging [these standard songs] and making them your own. Jazz as a genre encourages that creativity. In county music, when you walk into a honky tonk in Texas or a bar in Chicago and they’re playing ‘The Grand Tour,’ it’s going to sound very similar. And so that’s the opportunity that I think we have is looking at this great songbook of country music and reimagining it. Because the original Great American Songbook that we know and love from Broadway and Gershwin and Irving Berlin has been reimagined so many times that I think of this country music songbook as fresh repertoire.”

Griesbach says singing these great country songs that haven’t been reimagined countless times has helped her develop as an artist and establish a relationship with her audience.

“When someone comes to a concert of mine, what are they looking to hear? What are they going to expect? Any artist works on this their entire career. It’s not like it’s a goal and suddenly you get there and now you find you find your voice. Your voice, your performance is always evolving.”