The Crooked Jades have created a unique sound to "re-imagine" old-time music for today's listeners. It's gritty and real. Dark, even. The band's old-time instruments combine with a unique aesthetic and cross-genre pollination that's exceedingly rare. While the greats of American roots music influence them, the mood is just as informed by the half-rough, half-ethereal worlds of goth, darkwave, and the deeper parts of 1980s post-punk. Strange bedfellows, indeed, for an old-time outfit.
It's a unique testament to commonalities, both of the past—for instance, the late 19th century or the Depression Era—and the sonic milieu that shaped the band members' youth—these times brought forth art that explored fear, alienation, and longing. The relentless artistic drive to capture both the horrors and beauty of those eras was sated in genres that might initially seem a huge contrast but share a common emotional core.
"My very early influences from childhood were steeped in old-time and folk music," explained Jeff Kazor of the Crooked Jades. "But once I got to high school and college, I was exposed to so many different genres of music, including the alternative music scene of goth, darkwave and post-punk."
Kazor saw that the music of his earliest years wasn't actually all that different from cutting-edge trends happening in alternative scenes of the 80s and early 90s.
"There is a raw, dark underbelly infused in American traditional roots music that gave me more in common with – and connection to – contemporary artists such as Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Tom Waits," he said. "These bands are still huge influences on my musicality, including their powerful and emotive live shows, which ended up influencing my approach to arranging and performing traditional music."
At first, the band was taking a risk with a sound that was so…unexpected.
"In the beginning, The Crooked Jades' theatrical presentation of old-time music was unconventional in the traditional circles and was not received very well," he confessed. "But as years went by, I felt the criticism became our strength, and indeed, helped us build a wider audience for our music and sound by exposing new listeners to old-time music and traditionalists to some new interpretation and approaches to playing old-time."
The San Francisco-based band's most recent album, "Empathy Moves the Water," features 13 tracks, some of which use unexpected instruments such as the Vietnamese jaw harp and the harmonium.
"This album reflects what is going on in our community, country and world," Kazor explained. "There is so much fear-based behavior today that devalues empathy, and it is compromising our humanity. We're reflecting on how humans, living things and Mother Earth are mostly water." Water is what connects us, moves through us, and gives us life, He added. "I would argue that empathy is an essential life force, like water, and without empathy, we stagnate. There are so many religious themes around water – cleansing, rebirth and life – and the inconvenience of humanity in a modern world of automation. We are calling out to the great empathy spirit for salvation!"
For Kazor, the album's cover art perfectly relays the meaning behind the record.
"The imagery of the album cover somehow captures empathy for me…releasing empathy into this world without discrimination," he explained.
Music of The Crooked Jades has been used in films before, and another project is coming up soon.
"Our music is featured in a soon-to-be-released film, 'Call Me Mule,' by award-winning documentary filmmaker John McDonald," Kazor said. "The Crooked Jades composed and provided music for the feature-length documentary and is expected to have a summer release.
The project, filmed over a 27-month period, is the story of one man's struggle to roam freely with his mules, seeking a balance between the manmade world and the natural world.
"The film raises issues that concern all of us," he continued. "Preserving open space, individual freedom of movement, access to public land, and the system's treatment of people living outside society's norms." He added, "We love the film and are honored to participate in this amazing project."
Kazor said the band is currently in pre-production and "is looking for financial backing" for a new project.
"This new album will draw some unexpected connections between the 1880s and 1980s," Kazor said. "It will be an album of 1980s obscure goth and darkwave songs, all interpreted on fiddle, banjo, slide guitar, ukulele and arco bass."
For some, it might be hard to reconcile how the 1980s alternative could have so gripped someone who grew up exposed to the greats of traditional music. Those who know both genres well, however, will "get it."
"In 1977, My dad took me to my first concert at the Santa Cruz Civic to see Doc and Merle Watson accompanied by Merle's super musician hippy friends," Kazor recalled. "What an amazing performance!"
"Little did I know this event would be life-changing," he continued, "leading me to what proved to be my biggest influence, the Folkways album, 'The Watson Family.' Its essence was a primitive mountain music sound that appealed to me because it couldn't really be categorized. It was all over the map and blurred the edges between genres. That concert sparked my desire to study and play American folk music."
"It was the genesis of my music-making pursuits," he said, "and the formation of The Crooked Jades, which has been playing and evolving for over 25 years."