Throwing a rope over Western swing's return

Bruce Forman, widely recognized as one of the top jazz guitarists in the world, has gotten off the straight-ahead path in recent years to follow what seems at first a highly unlikely alternate route: Western swing.

Essentially a musical curiosity or historical footnote, the style was proposed and popularized by hot Texas fiddle-band leaders Milton Brown and Bob Wills in the early 1930s but was virtually extinct within three decades. Yet Forman — who was a member of Dizzy Gillespie's band and has worked with Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Joe Henderson and Barney Kessel — is an in-demand staple at international festivals and jazz clubs. He's just released “Cowlifornia Swing,” the fourth album by his band Cow Bop, an exceptionally tight and talented group whose members trade strictly in the old-school Wills-Brown style, albeit delivered with a hard bebop twist.

“It seems to have sort of taken over, and things are getting hot for Cow Bop now,” Forman says. “Critical mass seems to be nearing. People freak out when they hear it and even at my jazz gigs, they all want to hear Cow Bop.”

The band, which appears March 15 at Viva Cantina in Burbank, is driven by Forman's intricate, dazzling fret work and the coolly authoritative vocals of singer (and spouse) Pinto Pammy. Every song showcases Forman's innovative, engaging bop-tinged arrangements.

On “Cowlifornia Swing,” this means engaging versions of classic country songs like “Roly Poly” and “Cattle Call,” alongside such standards as Cole Porter's “What is This Thing Called Love?” and a wild “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” which strikes the ear as some kind of delightfully mutant Cajun Bebop Bossa Nova. “I've always wanted to obliterate the lines between types of music,” Forman says. “Because western swing is jazz and vice versa.”

Raised in Texas, Forman is an active horseman who can regularly be found in the saddle competing and cattle-herding, which is how Cow Bop was born in the mid-2000s. “We'd brought the herd in, cut the calves out, branded 'em and afterward, we were drinking beer and there's guitars playing around the fire. So I just started playing the way I play, and it really surprised some of the guys. Finally this old cowboy, a very respected horseman — type of guy who speaks maybe 10 words a month — he looks at me and says, 'You play better than you ride.' And so Pammy and I got the tunes together, we found musicians to join the band and it just grew up over time.

“I got more serious about it, wrote more arrangements, and now I feel like it's the one canvas I can put everything that I love onto,” Forman adds. “At my own, I almost feel like there's a limit to it — which is a drag, because it is jazz. My whole thing with getting into jazz was that it was creative and in that moment, when you reach it, you do create something. I don't buy into the categorizations and closed-mindedness which seems to have, as I've grown up in it, grown up around the music. Since when do non-conformists have a uniform? But, in jazz, yes, that's happened.”

Cow Bop is anything but closed-minded. Beside the dazzling musicianship, the bandmates crack wise, cut up and clown around, yet showmanship never overshadows the music.

“We've created ‘cowbaret,'” Forman says. “We've got a little bit of Louis Prima and light opera and Spike Jones in there too, along with these charts that I write, that are so fun to play. The majority of my living is still playing straight-ahead gigs, and now Cow Bop may be almost 50 percent of that, but it feels like the most honest thing I do. Every show is raging fun and, metaphorically, my chops are bloody at the end of the night. I play as much guitar on these gigs as I ever have.”

What: Cow Bop

Where: Viva Cantina, 900 W Riverside Dr., Burbank;

When: Friday, March 15, 8 p.m. Free.

Contact: (818) 845-2425.

JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of “Ramblin' Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox,” and “Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story.”

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