The Sound of Genius

I opened the paper this morning to the wondrous news that Chris Thile – celebrated l’enfant terrible of the mandolin – was one of the 2012 recipients of the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship grants.

You gotta love it when a kid who starts off in bluegrass ends up being recognized as a MacArthur “genius” – the popular term for the winners of the $500,000, no strings attached annual award.

Here’s the description from the MacArthur Foundation website:

Chris Thile is a young mandolin virtuoso and composer whose lyrical fusion of traditional bluegrass with elements from a range of other musical traditions is giving rise to a new genre of contemporary music. With a broad outlook that encompasses progressive bluegrass, classical, rock, and jazz, Thile is transcending the borders of conventionally circumscribed genres in compositions for his own ensembles and frequent cross-genre collaborations. Although rooted in the rhythmic structure of bluegrass, his early pieces for his long-time trio, Nickel Creek, have the improvisatory feel of jazz; his current ensemble, Punch Brothers, evokes the ethos of classical chamber music even while adhering to the traditional instrumentation of the bluegrass quintet. The Blind Leaving the Blind, a song suite on Punch Brothers’ first album (Punch, 2008), extends the sound of bluegrass in its range of harmonies and polyrhythms. Thile further explores the symphonic dimensions of the string quintet in both the improvised and elaborately composed works of Antifogmatic (2010). Among his many collaborations, Thile has expanded the reach of the mandolin in Ad Astra per Alas Porci (2009), a three-movement mandolin concerto, and in his solo mandolin interpretations of Bach’s works for violin, which showcase his technical mastery and fluid, soulful phrasing. Through his adventurous, multifaceted artistry as both a composer and performer with various ensembles, Thile is creating a distinctly American canon for the mandolin and a new musical aesthetic for performers and audiences alike.

Chris Thile studied music at Murray State University (1998–1999). From 1989 to 2007, he was a member of the trio Nickel Creek, and in 2006 he formed Punch Brothers. His additional recordings include Here to There (1997) and Why Should the Fire Die? (2005) with Nickel Creek; Who’s Feeling Young Now? (2012) with Punch Brothers; and the solo albums Not All Who Wander Are Lost (2001), Deceiver (2004), and How to Grow a Woman from the Ground (2006).

That’s all true.  But for those of us who have been listening to this phenom for a decade or two, he’s simply otherworldly.

There are many musicians who paved the way for Thile’s genius to bloom. His current band, Punch Brothers, plays with the same configuration of instruments – with the mandolin at the center – that the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe, established in the 1940s. Traditional music virtuosi such as Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs showed that roots music could include branches outside the strict confines of bluegrass and folk.  Monster string players such as Tony Rice and Mark O’Connor demonstrated that traditional musicians can play with a speed, tone, touch, and musicality that raised the bar in the acoustic music world to levels once thought to belong only in the jazz and classical genres. Dobro master Jerry Douglas and Newgrass pioneer Sam Bush bring a physicality to their playing that helped shaped this key aspect of Thile’s music. Composer and bandleader David Grisman almost single-handedly took the traditional string band instrumentation and showed how gifted players could play a wonderful blend of jazz, world, bluegrass, and classical.

Thile combines all of these talents, and more, in one incredibly energetic and creative individual.  Take, for instance, the Nickel Creek live classic, The Fox. In this version from a Merlefest performance that Claire and I saw a few years ago, Thile and his band mates take off on a traditional tune, and then find all sorts of ways to venture out into other music and genres, before meandering back to the original.

But Thile doesn’t have to be in a band setting to shine.  Listen to this wonderful Bach E Major Prelude, which Thile takes to the mandolin:

Jerry Douglas’ We Hide and Seek is a tune known to most fans of Alison Krauss + Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas.  However, in this trio version with Thile on the mandolin, you get more space to hear (and see) Thile’s work with one of the masters of Nashville.

Why not show TWO MacArthur genius grant recipients together?  Because, the talent here might just blow you away.  But if you are game, take a look at Thile and double bassist Edgar Meyer playing Farmer and the Duck.

This could go on for days.  So to wrap things up, let’s end with a fun tune by the Punch Brothers, Brakeman’s Blues, where Thile gets to channel his inner Jimmie Rodgers.

Congratulations, Chris Thile.  Well deserved!  And congratulations to the folks at the MacArthur Foundation for recognizing genius in some of the hidden places of American life and music.

More to come…


Remembering Don

It is the kind of email you never want to receive: a long-time friend was injured in a serious car accident on Monday. Wednesday he was taken off life support. Funeral on Friday.

So Candice and I left early this morning to drive the three hours to our old Shenandoah Valley home of Staunton to remember Don, mourn his death which came too early, and celebrate his life with his wife Ruth, son Philip, and many other friends.

The service began in the beautiful Temple House of Israel, designed in 1925 by Staunton architect Sam Collins in the Moorish Revival Style. The haunting Jewish melodies sung by a trio of women rolled around the wood, plaster, and tile interior.

Rabbi Joe Blair nailed Don in the eulogy.  There was much laughter and more than a few tears.

Don was one-of-a-kind.  He loved telling jokes while sitting around a table filled with wine, food he had cooked, family, and friends. I had my first pomegranate one evening after Don sliced the fruit and passed it around for all to enjoy. I can still taste the wonderful garlic from Don and Ruth’s table.

Don loved classical music, so I was surprised one evening when I walked in his house and heard the David Grisman and Andy Statman Songs of our Fathers CD coming through the speakers. We began talking about the Jewish melodies and mandolins and one thing led to another.  All of a sudden Don announced that he had gone to high school with Dr. Banjo!  “You’re kidding,” I replied, “You went to school with Pete Wernick?” Yep, said Don, matter-of-factly. Then he proceeded to talk some bluegrass for a while.  As the rabbi said today, Don had an amazing ability to remember a sometimes annoying amount of information – even for music that would have been obscure for most Jewish kids from Brooklyn.

Don loved his family and teaching.  The rabbi told stories today to illustrate both. When Ruth was losing her hair in a successful battle with cancer, Don told her not to worry because he had married her, not her hair. When asked how long he had been married, Don would invariably reply, “Not long enough!”  Don also loved his physics students at JMU, “except for those pre-med students who were only taking physics because they had to.” In those cases, Don would say “I saved a lot of lives by failing them.”

Don died much too young, but by being an organ donor he gave the gift of life on Wednesday to another patient at the University of Virginia medical center.  That’s not the only way his life continues, but it was a comforting thought today.

Rest in peace Don. You lived a good life and have a whole community you touched in ways you could have never realized.

More to come…


Five Albums for a Desert Island

David Grisman QuintetFacebook is full of lists – 25 Random Things About Me just being the best known of a recent flurry.  When I was on Facebook tonight, I saw a friend’s posting of Five Favorite Albums and thought, “Now that’s a list I could enjoy compiling.

It took me less than 3 minutes to come up with five albums that I’d want on my iPod if I were stuck on a desert island.  But the Facebook application doesn’t let you say much about the choices.  So I’ll turn to More to Come… and over the next few nights will tell you about:

  • The David Grisman Quintet
  • Will the Circle Be Unbroken
  • Time Out
  • Sgt. Peppers
  • Aereo-Plain

The David Grisman Quintet’s self-titled debut album blew me away the first time I put needle to vinyl back in the mid-70s and I still love to listen to the amazing musicianship of Grisman, Tony Rice, Darol Anger, Todd Phillips, and Bill Amatneek.  The cover of the album (see above) told you this record was all about the instruments and their players.  It looked like a bluegrass-influenced album, but from the opening notes of E.M.D. the listener was quickly dispelled of that notion.  Grisman, Rice, and Anger – taking the leads – were playing a type of string jazz influenced by gypsy, blues, and bluegrass  music that had a beauty and clarity I certainly hadn’t heard before.  At the time it was so unique that it was jaw dropping in its inspiration.  Now, 30+ years later every acoustic musician worth his or her salt can work their way through similar tunes, but the originality of Grisman’s vision in the 1970s reminds me of the breakthrough of bluegrass when Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in the 1940s and a whole new American music was created.

CD Universe actually has a pretty good review of the album and its impact:

David Grisman’s first album as a bandleader comes flying out of the speakers from the word go, crackling with the excitement of a group of musicians heading somewhere nobody has ever quite been before. Grisman’s band may have looked something like a bluegrass group but was modeled on Stephane Grapelli and Django Reinhardt’s Quintet of the Hot Club of France. Just as Reinhardt hired one or two other guitarists to beef up a drummer-less rhythm section, Grisman has Todd Philips here on second mandolin to add snap to the grooves.

Guitarist Tony Rice had been around for a while, as had Grisman himself (most notoriously as member as member of Old And In The Way alongside Jerry Garcia). But this record was as much a coming-out for Rice as it was for Grisman. Rice’s application of flawless bluegrass technique to more jazz–inflected material sets high standards for the “new acoustic” guitarists who inevitably entered his slipstream over the next decade. Most of the tunes here are Grisman’s, and they are noteworthy for their balance of detail and simplicity. He makes elegant ensemble statements yet leaves room at times for everyone to just play.

The following video is of E.M.D., the opening track of The David Grisman Quintet.  This version is not played by the original Quintet, but instead is a quartet.  Grisman and Rice handle the mandolin and guitar respectively, but Mark O’Connor who played both guitar and violin at various times in The DGQ is featured here in a truly hideous outfit playing some very nice violin.  The bass player in this version is long-time Grisman bassist Rob Wasserman.  Enjoy!

More to come…


Wayne Henderson, John Monteleone & More in Fretboard Journal

The Winter 2009 issue of The Fretboard Journal arrived in my mailbox yesterday, which means that I’ve been reading cover-to-cover for the last 24 hours.  As always there are articles about some of my favorite people in the music business.  But in every issue I’m also introduced to new musicians and new guitars.  What a great magazine!

This issue has articles on several terrific players, including jazz legend Jim Hall and a tribute to the late country pioneer Jerry Reed.   There’s an extended article celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, where you can learn how dobro god Jerry Douglas got one of his nicknames (and its not “Flux”). 

Quintet '80 CoverBut the articles on two luthiers – John Monteleone and Wayne Henderson – are my favorites in the current issue.  I was taken by the beauty of Monteleone’s instruments many years ago after David Grisman featured a Monteleone mandolin on the album cover of Quintet ’80.  John Monteleone’s archtop guitars are beautiful and innovative.  (The Fretboard Journal is known for publishing beautiful pictures of guitar eye candy!)  Monteleone’s use of Art Deco stylings on his instruments – detailed in the article – adds to their beauty in my eyes.

Wayne Henderson is a guitar player and luthier from Rugby, Virginia and is a recipient of a National Heritage Award.  I’ve seen him a couple of times in concert and had the chance to meet him at his last IMT performance.   Wayne’s talented and funny (he says Rugby is so small that residents have to take turns being the mayor, preacher, and the town drunk).  The Fretboard Journal article was written by Allen St. John who wrote the great read Clapton’s Guitar:  Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect InstrumentIn that book, he covers Henderson’s meandering path to completing a new guitar for Eric Clapton – along with a matching mate that was auctioned off at Christie’s for $31,200, with the proceeds going to Wayne’s charity that teaches area kids about mountain music.  Thanks to my good friend Stephen Lash, I was at Christie’s in New York for that auction but didn’t join the bidding.

This new article includes a section on building a Henderson guitar for Doc Watson.  While Doc has a long-time allegiance to Gallagher guitars, he owns others…and as the video below shows, he now owns a new Wayne Henderson guitar. 

The Fretboard Journal – highly recommended!

More to come…


Interviews with Dobro Master Jerry Douglas

My father sent along the news that WPLN public radio in Nashville featured an interview on August 18th with Dobro master Jerry Douglas that some readers will find interesting.  The interview and an on-line web extra are available at WPLN’s web site.   Many of you will recognize Douglas’ name from his work with Alison Kraus + Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas, but those of us who’ve been listening to bluegrass and new acoustic music since the 1970s know that he’s played with just about everyone – from the Country Gentlemen (his first professional gig as a teenager), to J.D. Crowe and the New South (with bandmates Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs), to Boone Creek, to Nashville session man extraordinaire from the 1980s on.  At least one regular reader of More to Come thinks Jerry Douglas is God.  If you want to see him live, go to YouTube to see this great set from Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival featuring Vince Gill and Jerry Douglas.

This posting reminds me that I haven’t made my quarterly update on the wonderful magazine The Fretboard Journal.  The Summer 2008 issue came just as I went on vacation, but this posting is timely as a reminder because there’s a great interview with Jerry Douglas (who talks about how it took NPR to force him back to the comedic beginnings of Dobro).  The cover story is an interview with mandolin phenom Chris Thile by a mandolin phenom from an earlier (sigh) age…David Grisman.  Many readers will remember Thile from the band Nickel Creek, which is now in semi-retirement.  The Fretboard Journal advertises itself as “Not Just Another Guitar Magazine” and there’s truth in that statement.  It is a great quarterly with coffee table photography of beautiful instruments and straight-ahead interviews of well-known and obscure musicians and builders.  (Others featured in the Summer issue include Ranger Doug and his great collection of Stromberg guitars, electric guitar pioneer Les Paul, and master acoustic guitar builder Jean Larrivee.) 

More to come…