Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene String Benders

Instrumentalists release interesting, genre-defying work

By Michael McCall

OCTOBER 25, 1999:  As music critics look back on musical developments of the '90s, they'll point out several prominent trends. They'll underscore the influence of rap and hip-hop on American culture. They'll cite the proliferation of electronic music and the rise and fall of grunge. They might even mention the embracing of country music by Middle America. But most will miss one important development: the enormous advances in the hard-to-define arena of progressive string music.

One reason this genre will be ignored is that it doesn't sell very well; the music industry and those who track it rarely pay attention to artists who count their sales in the tens of thousands. Even though the jazz-leaning Bela Fleck & the Flecktones regularly top critics' polls, and even though ground-breaking artists like Mark O'Connor and Edgar Meyer pack patrons into symphony halls, they're still largely ignored by the major U.S. media outlets.

Still, the impact these and other artists have made in the '90s will resonate for decades. Their creative leaps will forever influence how future string players approach their work: Anyone studying the banjo will have to reckon with what Fleck and Alison Brown have done; the Dobro will continue to gain new practitioners thanks to Jerry Douglas. Similarly, bassists will be inspired by Edgar Meyer, Victor Wooten, and Roy Huskey Jr.; fiddlers will be influenced by Mark O'Connor, Stuart Duncan, and Darol Anger; and mandolinists will be compared to David Grisman, Ronnie McCoury, and Sam Bush.

All of these artists--with perhaps the exception of Grisman--have created their best, most lasting work in the '90s. They've burst the future wide open, blurring the lines between classical, jazz, and funk while also embracing traditional elements of bluegrass and folk music. And that means anything is possible from here.

A case in point is the recent Short Trip Home, on which a quartet of classical and folk specialists come together to create something uniquely beautiful and moving. Featuring violinist Joshua Bell, bassist Edgar Meyer, mandolinist Sam Bush, and guitarist Mike Marshall, Short Trip Home merges the sound of the chamber hall and the sound of the mountains. The result is both artful and spirited. Not only do the compositions--most of them from the fruitful mind of bassist Meyer--inspire the players to reach beyond familiar ground, they also break down the walls between high art and folk art. These four cohorts prove that the distance between Mozart and Monroe isn't as far as it may seem.

With the 13 short pieces that comprise Short Trip Home, Meyer continues down a path he started upon with 1996's Appalachia Waltz, which featured O'Connor on fiddle and Yo Yo Ma on cello. This time, Meyer brings together young classical fiddler Joshua Bell with progressive acoustic folk players Bush and Marshall. (Bush was a onetime member of New Grass Revival, while Marshall, at various times, has been a member of such groundbreaking string bands as the David Grisman Quintet, Montreux, Modern Mandolin Quartet, and Psychograss.)

Obviously, Meyer is on a mission. An accomplished chamber music specialist who has worked with the Emerson String Quartet and the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, he loves both the European classical tradition and the American folk tradition. While highly regarded as a formal classical musician, Meyer has worked to erase the lines between genres since he moved to Nashville in the early '80s. On Short Trip Home, he and his pals have achieved this goal by making music that's radiantly intelligent, extremely well-executed, and a whole lot of fun, infused with moments of wit and funkiness.

Almost as good is the impressive outing of top-notch acoustic players who gather under the name NewGrange. The moniker appears to be a tip of the hat to the progressive bluegrass band New Grass Revival, but with a bit more of a Western feel.

As a group, NewGrange is as diverse as it is talented. Fiddler Darol Anger and bassist Todd Phillips were founding members of the David Grisman Quintet; guitarist Mike Marshall is another Grisman alumnus. Alison Brown, after turning heads with her jazz-influenced banjo playing in Alison Krauss' Union Station and in Michelle Shocked's band, has been leading her own band and refashioning the possibilities of the banjo. Vocalist/mandolinist Tim O'Brien, formerly of Hot Rize, has long been a leader of the progressive bluegrass movement. And keyboardist Philip Aaberg is a Windham Hill alumnus with a 30-year history of New Age recordings.

This talent-rich collaboration results in a precise yet expansive spin on old-time mountain music and jazz-inflected modern string music. On its self-titled album, released by Compass Records last month, NewGrange places new versions of old-time classics next to aggressively modern tunes, alternating between rousing renditions of "Handsome Molly" and "Rock in a Weary Land" and impressionistic, uptown instrumentals like Aaberg's stately "Cabin Waltz" and Brown's rollicking, Celtic-inspired "Weetabix." Planting one foot in the past and kicking the other into the future, the group shows where progressive acoustic music has come from and where it's going.

But Short Trip Home and NewGrange are only two of several noteworthy efforts coming from this camp of players, many of whom resurface in different groupings in the same way that jazz players alter lineups from record to record. On the traditional side, there's Bela Fleck's outstanding The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales From the Acoustic Planet, Volume 2; Dirk Powell, Tim O'Brien, and John Herrman's old-time music manifesto, Songs From the Mountain; and David Grisman, John Hartford, and Mike Seeger collaborating on the sparkling Retrograss. There's the eclectic crisscrossing of old and new on albums like Darol Anger's Diary of a Fiddler, Dirk Powell's Hand Me Down, and Rob Ickes' Slide City. And there are the decidedly more modern pursuits of Tony Furtado/Dirk Powell; the Anger/Marshall Band's Jam; and Phillips, Grier, & Flinner, featuring bassist Todd Phillips, acoustic guitarist David Grier, and fiddler Matt Flinner.

On each of these recordings, outstanding musicians push forward, inspired by each other and by their inner drive to create something credible and transcendent. In 1999, that's a truly refreshing concept. The result is music that will be listened to by fellow travelers long after most current million-sellers have been forgotten.

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