A love that resonates

From the first time he heard the dobro, Robert Ickes knew it was the instrument for him.

Robert Ickes 88 248 (photo credit: Senor McGuire)
Robert Ickes 88 248
(photo credit: Senor McGuire)
Whichever way you look at it, there's something special - and/or different - about Rob Ickes. The dobro (resonator guitar) player will, no doubt, surprise and then captivate his audiences at this year's Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat at his two gigs there (August 25 and 26). The surprise first registers when you notice something a bit strange about Ickes's posture on stage. Then you realize that his guitar is hanging at 90 degrees to his body. Dobro players also use a slide along the fret board or neck, rather than splaying their fingers into chord shapes. This is anything but a conventional acoustic or electric guitar thing. As Ickes's latest album, Road Song, amply demonstrates, in the right hands, the dobro is capable of producing an amazing array of textures and colors. On the jazz standard "Take the A Train" on Road Song, for instance, at a couple of points Ickes makes his guitar sound something like a sitar (Indian string instrument). "Yes, you can do all sorts of things with the dobro," says Ickes in a telephone interview from his Nashville, Tennessee home. "I can make Eastern sounds and, if I slant the bar in my left hand, I can produce a buzz. I love the timbre that creates." Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area, thirtysomething Ickes initially fed off the stuff that his dad listened to on FM radio stations, like Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Wonder. Ickes was steered in the direction of his eventual career by other members of his family. "My grandparents all played old-time music on fiddle and banjo, and my older brother started playing banjo," Ickes recalls. And there was also plenty of bluegrass music to be heard in that neck of the woods in California, too. The die was cast for good when Ickes came across the work of dobro icon Mike Auldridge when he was 13. "I liked the stuff played by people like Hendrix and [funk-jazz guitarist] John Scofield [who is also on this year's Eilat roster] and the other famous guitarists, but it was always the dobro for me. That was my first instrument and I've never wanted to play anything else. The sound of it set me on fire. That was it for me." Listening to Ickes's playing on Road Song, on which he teams up with pianist Michel Alvey - who will also be with him in Eilat - you get the picture loud and clear. Ickes is a true master of the instrument, and he manages to bend and sculpt such an eclectic range of sounds and textures from it that you begin to suspect he may be surreptitiously filtering his sonic output through some computerized enhancement gizmos. But it all comes down to plain, old dexterity and organic instrumental wizardry. SINCE MOVING from his native California to the more bluegrass-friendly environs of Nashville in 1992, Ickes's career has developed in leaps and bounds. He is a founding member of bluegrass supergroup Blue Highway and he has won the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) dobro player of the year award no fewer than 10 times. There have also been a couple of Grammy Award-winning contributions, on the 1994 The Great Dobro Sessions album, and a sparkling synergy with multi-Grammy Award recipient Alison Krauss, who enjoyed a well documented partnership with former Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant in 2007. Besides the highly varied textural offerings, Red Sea Jazz festival patrons may also get a sense of intimacy at the Ickes-Alvey concerts which, considering the players' shared milieu, is hardly surprising. It was Ickes's young daughter who served as the catalyst for the highly fruitful collaboration. "She came home from school a couple years ago and told me her second grade teacher had asked if I would play something for the class," Ickes explains. "The teacher played the piano at the sessions and he suggested we play some blues. It was great." The teacher was Michael Alvey, and the pair hasn't looked back since. "Michael would show me some jazz stuff and I'd show him some bluegrass and we just started jamming and playing together." Mind you, considering Alvey has kept his daytime job going, there are some logistics to be negotiated too. "Yes, we have to set gigs for school vacations, but Michael has to take some extra time off from school too." For more information, visit: www.redseajazzeilat.com.