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John Coltrane died at age 40, and in retrospect it seems as if the intensity of activity in his last years, the sheer torrent of notes, was an attempt at purging the music from his soul before it was too late. The guitarist Jack Rose died at 38, in 2009, and listening back to his catalog one has a similar notion. Like Coltrane, Jack Rose’s last years were marked by a shimmering intensity, an outpouring of his spirit, onto audiences and records.
I believe Jack Rose felt the duty of preservation but was by no means bound by it. With his virtuoso fingerstyle technique and restless guitar explorations–modal epics, bottleneck laments, uptempo rags–it’s easy to hear a connection to tradition and at the same time a pulsing modernism: “Ancient to the Future” in the words of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Ultimately, it’s no use attempting to explain the unexplainable (natural disasters, God, art, death). As the air gets heavy before a thunderstorm, Jack Rose’s vivid guitar picking awakes in us a peculiar awareness, something ancient and American. Jack Rose’s work exists along the established continuum of American vernacular music: gospel, early jazz, folk, country blues and up through the post-1960s “American primitive” family tree from John Fahey and Robbie Basho and outward to other idiosyncratic American musicians like Albert Ayler, the No-Neck Blues Band, Captain Beefheart and Cecil Taylor. His process can best be heard as an evolution; renditions of songs would transform over time, worked out live, with changes in duration, tempo or attack, in the search for a song’s essence.
“Dr. Ragtime and His Pals” marks Rose’s step into the world of group interplay with versions of his standard repertoire arranged for a band. In its finished form, it exists as a sort of “party record” within his discography. Highlights are raucous and many, including “Linden Avenue Stomp,” “Knoxville Blues,” the spiritual “Blessed be the Name of the Lord” and Sam McGee’s “Buckdancer’s Choice.” In assembling this album, Jack chose musicians with distinctive personalities and their own personal connections to old-time music; people he could learn from. His “Pals” rotated often and in this case include the banjo player Mike Gangloff (Jack’s old accomplice in Pelt as well as the Black Twig Pickers), Micah Blue Smaldone on guitar, Glenn Jones on guitar, Nathan Bowles (Black Twig Pickers) on washboard, and Philadelphia legend Harmonica Dan (“Knoxville Blues”). The result is a late night back porch jam session, fueled by whisky, friendship, and a shared love of the old weird American music found on forgotten 78s.
Jack Rose was a larger than life man with a hearty spirit–a no-bullshit gentleman–and his death continues to reverberate among the community of musicians and music people he called friends. This spirit, as evidenced within his recorded output, has proven to be indomitable and continually vital.
-Scott McDowell, May 2016