Here's something you can't often say about a jazz album: it was initiated by a 6-year-old. The new jazz standards project by bluegrass star Rob Ickes creates an unusual pairing: the piano and the dobro. The dobro is a guitar. It's played with a steel bar. It's most commonly used in bluegrass and country music.

Craig Havighurst of member station WPLN explains.

CRAIG HAVIGHURST: Veteran music teacher Michael Alvey spends his days in an elementary school in Franklin, Tennessee…

(Soundbite of music)

HAVIGHURST: …with little children…

Mr. MICHAEL ALVEY (Music Teacher; Pianist): Not too loud, back row.

HAVIGHURST: …and a room full of instruments.

Mr. ALVEY: Ready?

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

HAVIGHURST: Alvey says a couple of years ago, one of his students brought him a CD by her father, a relatively common occurrence in this affluent suburb of Nashville.

Mr. ALVEY: A lot of times, I get things from parents done in their home studios, and they sound okay. But when I heard this, I said: This guy is like a world class musician. Why have I not heard of Rob Ickes?

(Soundbite of music)

HAVIGHURST: The easy answer is that Alvey has never closely followed bluegrass, where Ickes is a star. He's been named dobro player of the year a record 10 times by the International Bluegrass Music Association, largely for his role as a founding member of the band Blue Highway. But he's also a prolific sideman and solo artist, with four CDs to his credit. That doesn't mean he's above a good old show-and-tell session.

Mr. ROB ICKES (Musician; Dobro Player): I had done that at their preschool and other of their classes. And I kind of come in and show the kids what a dobro is and how it works and what it sounds like. And Michael was sitting at the piano, and I said: Well, you want to (unintelligible) play a blues or something?

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ICKES: So we started playing, and Michael just blew me away. I mean, I couldn't believe that this, you know, elementary school music teacher…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ICKES: I felt like I was getting the history of jazz just in that one song.

Mr. ALVEY: The connection was immediate.

HAVIGHURST: Pianist Michael Alvey.

Mr. ALVEY: And that's the way it is with musicians. You know, you almost know after about eight bars. From then forward, it was more of a discovery process.

(Soundbite of music)

HAVIGHURST: Dozens of after-hours rehearsals here in the music room of Moore Elementary School let them explore a mutual fascination with each other's genres. Ickes grew up near San Francisco and was inspired toward a career on bluegrass dobro by Flatt & Scruggs and dobro master Mike Auldridge of the Seldom Scene. He's always loved jazz but never really studied it in depth.

Mr. ICKES: So as we started getting together, Michael just would really teach me a lot of great things. I remember one time, he told me, we were playing "Caravan" or some Duke Ellington piece, and I kind of know the melody, and I was kind of jiving my way through it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ICKES: And after we're done, Michael said: You know, with a lot of these standards and stuff, you can embellish and tweak your way around it. But with Ellington, you really have to play it note for note.

(Soundbite of music)

HAVIGHURST: Pianist Alvey, originally from North Carolina, studied classical music and picked up a passion for jazz in high school and college. A job as a music director at Busch Gardens theme park in Virginia led him to Nashville, where he worked at Opryland USA by day and jazz clubs at night.

(Soundbite of music)

HAVIGHURST: Since he shifted to classroom work almost 30 years ago, he's done more teaching than performing, so he says this collaboration with Ickes has been an unexpected learning experience.

Mr. ALVEY: This is a discussion Rob and I have had many times about bluegrass versus jazz. He would say to me: How do you learn all those different chords and inversions, and how do you harmonically move around these songs and improvise and make all this makes sense? My response was: How do you play a song with two or three chords and make it sound like a symphony when you're all over the place? And after about eight bars, I've run out of ideas.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HAVIGHURST: That said, Alvey seems to have found his way through the album's one country standard: Hank Williams' "You Win Again."

(Soundbite of music)

HAVIGHURST: "Road Song" marks the first release on Rob Ickes' own record label, reflecting an impulse to take his instrument in new directions.

Mr. ICKES: Personally, I don't feel like an iconoclast or somebody who breaks down barriers really aggressively. But I do feel like that's what I'm supposed to do, you know, as a musician on this instrument, is learn the standards and study the great players that came before me. But I do feel like part of my deal is expanding where the instrument goes.

HAVIGHURST: He's doing that with a mix of received knowledge, curiosity and playfulness, which is really not so different from what Michael Alvey tries to cultivate every school day in the classroom where he and Ickes first met.

For NPR News, I'm Craig Havighurst in Nashville.

(Soundbite of music)


You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from