For much of the 20th Century, jazz drew melodic inspiration from the Gershwins, Cole Porter and other sophisticated pop songwriters. Bryan and the Haggards, led by saxophonist Bryan Murray, hearken back to that era with outlandish, inventive and often hilarious instrumental renditions of tunes by the great country songwriter Merle Haggard — and occasionally Merle mentor Bob Wills. Guitarist-banjoist-vocalist Eugene Chadbourne, who’s been infusing country music with hyperactive improvisation and humor for decades, kicks their goofy brilliance into overdrive on the quintet’s third album.
The conceit wouldn’t work half so well if the Haggards weren’t one of the smartest-blowing bands around. Murray and co-saxophonist Jon Irabagon mutate Boots Randolph’s yackety-country-sax conventions into jazz modernism, with a side of Spike Jones. They exploit their instrument’s more vocal qualities in “Fightin’ Side of Me” and blow extended balloon-squeal intervals in “Okie From Muskogee.” The Hag’s achey-breakiest melodies become fodder for bizarre embellishments in “Listening to the Wind” and Chadbourne’s touching mashup of “If We Make It Through December” and “Someday We’ll Look Back.” And anyone who ever mistook Haggard for a real redneck will dig Chadbourne’s throwaway references to peace, love, and the Occupy movement.