Annie Sellick and Pat Bergeson turn the Nashville tradition on its ear by mixing jazz and folk

By Bliss Bowen

Pat Bergeson and Annie Sellick are experimenting with a husband-wife jam band that’s grittier than they look

As Nashville has grown over the past decade, its reputation as “Music City USA” has become truer than ever thanks to an influx of rock, pop, hip-hop and R&B artists who have broadened the ranks of an already deeply rooted community of country and Americana musicians. Yet it still remains a lonely outpost for jazz.

That makes Nashville native Annie Sellick a rarity: not just a jazz singer in the Grand Ole Opry’s hometown, but an ex-Deadhead who has never sung country. Starting in the early 2000s, when she hit the road singing with marquee acts like Mark O’Connor and Tommy Emmanuel as well as a plethora of jazz trios, she found more work in her “second home” of Los Angeles — and not just because of her unconventionally dreadlocked appearance.

“I worked in the L.A. area a lot, with a lot of different bands,” she says by phone from her Nashville home, rattling off the names of Shelly Berg, Charles Berghofer, Gerald Clayton, Bruce Forman, Josh Nelson, and various other cabaret and jazz players with whom she worked at venues like Hollywood’s Catalina Club, the Westin Hotel near LAX and the Vic in Santa Monica, where she recorded her 2005 live album “A Little Piece of Heaven.” “It was awesome. It was a little life. I did two albums out there, just to kind of harness the fun and excitement and growth I was experiencing in the Los Angeles community of jazz musicians.”

Sellick estimates she still comes to the L.A. area four or five times a year. But after 20 years and several albums of straight-ahead jazz, she says, “I don’t want to do piano trio jazz anymore.”

Instead, the engaging vocalist is having fun swinging with the Hot Club of Nashville, whose sparkling gypsy jazz has found receptive ears in the blue-grass community and at the fabled Bluebird Cafe.

Concurrently, she is exploring new musical possibilities in a duo with her guitarist husband Pat Bergeson, who also plays in the Hot Club and will join her at Boulevard Music Friday night. Both the unnamed duo and the Hot Club, which had been side projects to her bread-and-butter jazz trio work, are “gaining more life,” she says, “partly because — this is interesting — a lot of the jazz clubs I used to play are closed.” Her duo with Bergeson, who once played in Chet Atkins’ band, leans into folk and blues, thus opening opportunities to play at different venues for new audiences.

“I wanted to grow into something a little more original, whatever that might look like,” she explains. “And honestly, that scares me. It scares me to death. I really admire all these Nashville people that write songs and come out and do their own thing.”

Although she has written a couple of songs that went over well with audiences, like the openhearted “Rain,” she jokes that songwriting “feels like solving a long division problem, or algebra. It’s not fun.”

So she’s searching for other ways to “crack a show” and be original without being a songwriter. She and Bergeson have reinvented arrangements for standards like “That’s All,” which a friend played as they walked down the aisle in 2008, and Sellick’s medley of “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby” and “Hit the Road Jack.”

Their acoustic sound isn’t as funky or rocking as contemporary bands she admires like Umphrey’s McGee (“They’re very compositional when they jam”) and Brooklyn soul-rockers Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds, but Sellick hopes the duo has “some of the energy and heart and soul” of jam bands.

Sometimes, she reads journal entries backed by Bergeson’s tasteful fingerpicking; other times, she accompanies his guitar and harmonica with her own body percussion. Her hamboning is as much
a signature as her hair.

Early in her career, a local critic noticed her at a weekly jam and made mention in his column of “a girl with dreadlocks and Birkenstocks who sits in and sounds like a contemporary of Rosemary Clooney.”

While Sellick has a sweeter, lighter tone than Clooney, he was on point about her style. Down to earth in conversation, she personably shapes songs with her voice in performance — a rhythmic angling of a word here, a smooth elongation or emotional parsing of a melodic phrase there, a grittier tone for bluesy tunes. That holds true even as she purposefully ventures beyond the purist approach that defined her career.

“I sang jazz standards, and I did it in very much a purist way, and I loved it and honored it for a very long time,” she muses. “But now I want to see what might come from different instrumentation, and different kinds of groups.”

Annie Sellick and Pat Bergeson perform at Boulevard Music (4316 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City) at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17. Tickets are $17.50. Call (310) 398-2583 or visit anniesellick.com/duo.

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