Don’t fence him in

Guitarist Bruce Forman rides into town for jazz at MSU


With his 10-gallon hat, denim attire and unpretentious air, guitarist Bruce Forman is not a typical jazzman. He often masks his dazzling mastery of jazz guitar with an unpretentious cowboy attitude and a keen smell for horse manure.

It’s a safe bet MSU jazz studies has not yet stabled a canny thoroughbred like Forman, 66, who digs in for a residency this week, ending in a rollicking concert with stellar student ensembles at the Fairchild Theatre on Friday (Feb. 3).

At a cowboy festival in the early 1990s, Forman found a guitar lying around and played a few of his Western favorites, riled up with plenty of bebop licks straight out of Bird, Monk and Diz. Thus was born the quirkiest of Forman’s many bands, Cow Bop.

“We started off being kind of like the turd in the punch bowl,” he said. “Let’s face it — the one thing cowboys hate is jazz, and the one thing jazz musicians hate is cowboys. We were ready to be hated by everybody.”

But Forman can do anything on guitar, from quietly breathing in the open spaces to unleashing a stampede of improvisation, driving home the message that music is music, and to hell with fences.

“We played those Western cowboy songs our way,” he said. “We won them over. Next thing you know, we got gigs and made a record.” (Four records, in fact, including one called “Too Hick for the Room.”)

“We were having fun, but we never really stopped playing jazz.”

A lot of folks don’t know that the smoky campfire beans in many famous “Western” songs were cooked up in Tin Pan Alley, not Monument Valley. “I’m an Old Cowhand” was written by sophisticate Johnny Mercer. “Don’t Fence Me In” was penned by über-urbane penthouse dweller Cole Porter. 

“People don’t realize there was this whole period in time where Western music was really the rage, both in Broadway and pop,” Forman said.

Even saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins helped blaze a trail between the two camps. A major inspiration for Cow Bop is Rollins’ honking, swaggering, drolly-dusty 1957 album, “Way Out West.” 

“But mostly, it just came from the fact that I’m a cowboy,” Forman said. “I ride horses. I used to do roping and ranch work.”

Cow Bop had a wild heyday from 2008 to 2016 as a five-piece traveling band.

“We’d do a cowboy festival in the afternoon and a jazz festival at night, and we honestly didn’t change what we did,” Forman said. 

There’s another thing Forman loves about Cow Bop.

“There was a time, from the ‘90s into the 2000s, where jazz kind of lost its sense of humor,” he said. “For me, Cow Bop is my reaction to the overt seriousness of the presentation. Not the playing. That’s the most serious thing in the world.”

As a crack California guitar hand in the 1980s and ‘90s, Forman played with trumpet icon Dizzy Gillespie, hard-driving saxophonist Richie Cole, vibraphone master Bobby Hutcherson, trumpet firebrand Freddie Hubbard and many other greats.

“Those guys were great musicians, but they were having fun on the bandstand,” Forman said. “We’re serious about the playing part, but there’s nothing wrong with making something happen in the room, being entertaining.”

A few weeks ago, he sent a few arrangements to MSU jazz guitar professor Randy Napoleon to get the students started. Forman was already excited to visit MSU jazz studies, which he called “one of the flagship programs of this country,” when a swinging clip of the student ensembles playing last week at Jazz at Lincoln Center for the Jack Rudin Championship sent him over the moon.

“I mean, they sound so good,” he said. “So good.”

Forman has a lot of irons in the fire these days, including a touring project called “The Red Guitar,” modeled after “The Red Violin” and “The Red Shoes,” two films about an obsession with music (or dance). The project mixes music, philosophy and storytelling to weave a tale of musical infatuation. 

In another project, Junkyard Duo, Forman plays broken, salvaged and cobbled-together instruments to create haunting rust-and-bone soundscapes. He also teaches jazz guitar at the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California.

Cow Bop is slowing down, due to the difficulty of keeping a five-piece band going, but they have two concerts planned for this year.

“The cow still moos,” Forman said.

His latest CD, “The Reunion,” is a critical smash and a return to his meat and potatoes, the jazz guitar trio. The album is a fresh approach to the jazz musician’s eternal task — balancing the weight of tradition with spontaneous self-expression. It’s a tribute to Forman’s guitar idol and one-time bandmate Barney Kessel, but there’s a twist: The titular “reunion” refers to three instruments, not three musicians. There’s even an oddly touching group “portrait” on the cover: Kessel’s old guitar, now owned by Forman; an upright bass that belonged to jazz icon Ray Brown, played by bassist John Clayton; and a drum kit well beaten by another jazz legend, Shelly Manne, played by drummer Jeff Hamilton.

Forman doesn’t want this crucial link in jazz and American music history to be forgotten. In the mid-1960s, Kessel’s astonishing guitar artistry launched the now-ubiquitous guitar-bass-drum format in a series of groundbreaking albums with Brown and Manne under the rubric of the Poll Winners.

When the trio’s first disc hit in 1957, “the guitar was barely 20 years old as an electric instrument,” Forman said. Kessel commanded a serious spotlight for guitar as a lead instrument. In a very short time, guitarists went from plunking accompanists to literal rock stars. The road was open to Sonny Rollins’ landmark 1962 album, “The Bridge,” with Jim Hall on guitar; the rise of Buddy Holly’s amplified trio; and points way beyond.

“Within 10 years of the first Poll Winners album, Jimi Hendrix came out with ‘Are You Experienced?’” Forman said. “If one more person says Barney Kessel’s name, that’s worth this whole project.”


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