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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1324

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Mike Marshall & Chris Thile: Into the Cauldron
by George Graham

(Sugar Hill 3967 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/21/2003)

It was in the late 1970s when David Grisman and his West-Coast-based quintet plunged headlong into combining bluegrass with jazz and other non-traditional styles, and doing it instrumentally sans vocals. Since then, the so-called New Acoustic music scene has been flourishing. When the pioneering artists like Grisman, Tony Rice and Sam Bush were busy inventing the style, they were rather young, compared to the long-time bluegrass artists. Now, almost a quarter century later, a further younger generation has come along, expanding the style even more -- artists such as the band Nickel Creek, and Alison Krauss. It has been a long-time tradition in folk music and bluegrass in particular, that the younger players should learn from the veterans, often playing in the elders' bands. But it often happens that such younger-generation players set off on their own, they tend to form bands with their own generation.

This week, we have a duo recording by artists who epitomize the two generations of the New Acoustic scene -- Mike Marshall and Chris Thile. Their joint recording, consisting of just two mandolins, is called Into the Cauldron.

Mike Marshall was one of the founding members of Grisman's seminal group, along with Tony Rice, Todd Phillips and Darol Anger. Since then, he has been in some of the most interesting projects the field has brought forth, including the wildly eclectic group Psychograss, duet recordings with fiddler Anger, and projects with bassist Edgar Meyer and classical musicians. Over the years, Marshall has been in the thick of developments in New Acoustic music, not to mention being a real virtuoso on the mandolin.

Chris Thile could properly be called a prodigy. He appeared with his first album leading a bluegrass group at age 13. For the past few years, he has been one of the principal members of the young bluegrass sensation group Nickel Creek, who combine remarkable musicianship, excellent composing, and an appealing telegenic demeanor that has won them a surprising degree of popularity, selling close to a combined million and a half copies of their two CDs. Still in his early 20s, Thile brings nearly astonishing technique to his mandolin, and also serves as an able composer with the group. Since the release of their eponymous CD in 2000, two of Nickel Creek's principal instrumentalists, Chris Thile and guitarist Sean Watkins, have released their own solo albums. In fact it was just a few weeks ago that this series considered Sean Watkins' fine new second solo recording, and in late 2001, Thile himself released Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost, which put him in the company of such New Acoustic luminaries as Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas and Edgar Meyer.

Now, Marshall and Thile, representing two distinct generations, have gotten together for a virtuosic mandolin session, in which they seem to be thoroughly enjoying each other's company. Into the Cauldron is rather a bold step even in the New Acoustic scene -- just two mandolins and nothing else, and no vocals. The mandolin is not exactly the most full-bodied instrument, and the idea of a whole album of just two of the high-voiced instruments, known for their lack of sustaining quality, on the surface seems like an exercise in self-indulgence, or something of interest only to mandolin players. But the recording turns out to be a joy, with the two mandolinists having an infectiously good time doing everything from old traditional Celtic tunes to Charlie Parker bebop to one of the Bach Goldberg variations, plus some original pieces. And joy turns out to be a good descriptive word as the two musicians seem to have a great deal of fun having a lively musical conversation and romping through the gamut of genres represented on the CD. While most of the CD is just the two mandolins, occasionally Mike Marshall will switch to the lower-voiced mandocello for added colors, but at no time are there any overdubs evident. It's just the two musicians playing in real time -- making the record even more impressive. Throughout the session, Thile is heard on the left in stereo, and Marshall is on the right,

Into the Cauldron opens with a Mike Marshall composition Harvest Time, which is in the classic New Acoustic mode. The bluegrassy, swingy tune exudes a kind of almost triumphal musical glee. <<>>

That is followed by one of the eclectic departures. Desvairada, a romantic South American choro ballad. The duo takes the piece at a brisk tempo, and which seems to impart their sense of enthusiasm. <<>>

The mandolin is an instrument that goes back at least to the baroque classical period, and composers like Vivaldi created music for it. So hearing Bach on a pair of mandolins does not sound out of character. Mike Marshall plays his mandocello, and the duo's treatment of the first of the Goldberg Variations is respectful but also done with a sense of fun. <<>>

Also featuring the mandocello is a Chris Thile composition called Stranded in Kodiak. It's a rather more brooding piece that does tend to go on a bit longer than it might have, though the playing is fine, as always. <<>>

One of the biggest surprises for a treatment by two mandolins is Charlie Parker's classic bebop standard Scrapple from the Apple. Marshall and Thile pull it off well, giving it enough swing to keep it jazzy, but also putting an unmistakable bluegrass stamp on it. <<>>

Also from the jazz world is the piece called The Saga of Harrison Crabfeathers, by pianist Steve Kuhn. It's the CD's longest track, and the piece provides plenty of thematic and harmonic variation for the two mandolinists to show their resourcefulness. <<>>

Back in the more familiar world for bluegrass is Fisher's Hornpipe, but the duo makes their version anything but traditional. The musical conversation between the players is nothing short of riveting. <<>>

Most of the rest of the eleven tracks on the CD consist of original material, in some cases joint compositions, which probably started life as improvisations. One such is What a Blast! one of the higher-energy pieces -- or least all the energy one can muster with two acoustic mandolins. <<>>

The CD ends with the traditional piece Shamrock Shore played by both mandolinists almost entirely on string harmonics, no easy task on a mandolin. The result is bell-like quality. <<>>

An instrumental album consisting only of two mandolins is not likely to find its way to the top of the pop charts, or even enjoy the sales potential of the current rising tide of bluegrass. But one listen to Mike Marshall and Chris Thile's Into the Cauldron will show that these remarkable musicians from two distinct generations of the New Acoustic scene have made some amazing music together. While occasionally one might wish for some other instrumentation, the fullness of the music the duo create with just their high-pitched instruments is very impressive, and for musicians who are into the technique of making music, their playing is likely to leave quite a few jaws on the floor.

Our grade for sound quality is about an A-minus. The clarity of the recording is good, as is the use of reverberation ambiance, which they collected from a church in Berkeley, California. Although the dynamic range is better than most CDs today, the audio level hits the digital max too many times for an all-acoustic recording like this. The ambience would have been even more enjoyable without pushing the level so high.

As unlikely or even esoteric as a mandolin duo is, Marshall and Thile turn their musical encounter into a real musical treat for almost anyone who is a fan of great acoustic music.

(c) Copyright 2003 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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