When he formed Cow Bop a little more than 10 years ago, guitarist Bruce Forman saw it as an opportunity to bring together two of his passions: jazz and Western music.
"I've always been a straight ahead jazz and bebop player throughout my career. And, not a lot of my musician friends knew it at the time, but I am also a Western horseman. I do a lot of riding and training of horses," Forman said recently on the phone from his Los Angeles home. "So this brand sort of brought it all together."
The L.A.-based Cow Bop plays a combination of bebop jazz and Western swing that is next to irresistible. The band also prominently features Forman's wife, powerhouse singer Pinto Pammy, who brings a background in big band, swing, old-time country and musical theater to the mix.
Cow Bop plays at the Boondocks Lounge this Saturday night. Local legend Ned Sutton opens the show with his band, Last Dance.
Cow Bop have been playing together since 2003, and saw the release in 2012 of their fourth and most recent album, Cowlifornia Swing.
Forman, 58, grew up in San Francisco and spent a large part of his career playing in New York City, often in the bands of such greats as vibes player Bobby Hutcherson and saxophonist Richie Cole.
He acknowledges the influence of great jazz guitarists such as Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel and Django Reinhardt on his playing, but Cow Bop also allows him to pay homage to the spirits of the legendary bandleaders of Western swing, such as Bob Wills, Spade Cooley and Milton Brown.
"Those guys really pioneered Western swing, but aren't always mentioned in the same sentence as the jazz greats," he said.
Forman has played in Tucson several times over the years, accompanying other artists. But this weekend's gig will be the first here for Cow Bop, which will be driving through Tucson on their way back from a Western swing festival in San Marcos, Texas. In Los Angeles, Forman also teaches guitar at the University of Southern California, and still plays jazz gigs when he can.
"Cow Bop takes a larger and larger percentage of my time these days ... but I am always looking for new situations and players."
Forman's day job at USC allows him the opportunity to hear younger players who are students, and he sometimes brings them into Cow Bop. In a way, he considers the band to be a Western-swing version of Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, a 1950s and '60s bebop ensemble that often featured up-and-coming talents.
Forman says he appreciates the musical legacy passed on to him by the bandleaders he's played with, and he hopes to share a little of that with the younger guys who play with him now.
If Cow Bop had a mission statement, the word "fun" would be in it.
"I have so much fun doing this, which is really one of the overarching concepts of bands," Forman said. "Jazz has become in some ways so serious that I think it makes it less accessible for some listeners. While I love serious music, and I play just as much to challenge myself, I think jazz has to be more available for listeners, so they can feel a sense of fun. That is what this band does, I hope."
For instance, on Cowlifornia Swing, Cow Bop's interpretation of "Mambo Italiano" swings the twang while working in generous soloing by Forman and saxophonist/trumpeter David Wise, as well as musical references to the theme songs from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and The Munsters. The cut reminds us, too, that there is a great surf-Western guitar riff in the latter.
The new album also features another great example of the conjunction of jazz and Western music in "Indian Love Call," a Broadway standard made famous by Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald in the 1930s. Versions of the tune by Chet Atkins and Slim Whitman became hits in the 1950s.
And when Cow Bop gets hold of the Nancy Sinatra classic "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'," you can almost imagine the swing groove and Pammy's sassy high-desert vocals. But the addition of an accordion gives it a Southwestern flavor.