ON THE TOWN
January 20, 2006
ONCE MALIGNED, THE MIGHTY MANDOLIN BLAZES COMEBACK
By David Royko
Special to the Tribune
For a tiny instrument, the mandolin has a big history--and an even bigger future if the conclave of pickers descending on the area over the next few weeks has its way.
Coming are Sam Bush, Zeus of Newgrass mandolinists; Don Stiernberg, the jazz mandolin's savior; Mike Marshall, a plectral polymath who lives to explore; and Chris Thile, who has redefined the possibilities of eight strings and a flatpick.
With roots stretching back 4,000 years to Mesopotamia and peaking in American popularity during the 19th Century via European immigration, the mandolin was a has-been by the late 1920s compared with the guitar, violin or banjo--which is why it landed in Bill Monroe's hands in the first place. The sole household instrument not already claimed by his older siblings, by the 1930s and '40s, Monroe (1911-1996) had given the mandolin a completely new sound, and life.
Monroe's alchemization became bluegrass: virtuosic, often driving but able to caress a lyrical line, rooted in blues, Celtic, Appalachian, down east, jazz, and the church. The music provided a fertile ground for the modern masters who followed.
After Monroe, nobody has done more to advance the mandolin than Sam Bush. From his first LP, Poor Richard's Almanac, recorded in 1969 while still in high school in Bowling Green, Bush has created milestones, and for 18 years, many of them came with his band, New Grass Revival. Since NGR disbanded in 1989, he's gone from strength to strength, currently focusing on his Sam Bush Band, performing at Dominican University in River Forest. For Bush, Monroe is only one side of the coin, and he isn't saying which is heads.
"My dad was never necessarily a fan of Bill Monroe," says Bush. "When I was a kid, we listened to the Grand Ole Opry. Bill played `John Henry' and I said, `God, that's incredible,' and I remember my dad going, `That ain't nothin'. You oughta hear Jethro Burns.'"
Mandolin pioneer David Grisman has called Burns (1920-1989) "the world's greatest and funniest mandolinist." Half of the popular musical comedy duo "Homer and Jethro" from 1938 to 1971, most of his audience had no idea Kenneth "Jethro" Burns was a peerless jazz mandolinist.
As Bush grew, he listened to everything available to a rural Kentucky Baby Boomer, and if he liked it--country, rock, reggae, soul, or Burns, Monroe or the Mahavishnu Orchestra--it emerged alchemized, as Monroe had done, through his mandolin. Bush's explosive rock energy, deeply infectious rhythmic drive, tone as familiar as a best friend's voice, a technique strong as granite and manic creativity all contribute to the foundation on which his musical mansion is built.
"Sam has been my hero since I saw New Grass Revival at the University of Chicago Folk Festival in 1972," says Don Stiernberg. "When I went to my first lesson with Jethro and he asked me what I wanted to learn, I asked him to show me how to play like Sam! In retrospect, this seems tantamount to going to [Andres] Segovia and asking him to show you how to play like [Jimi] Hendrix."
Stiernberg--who will be presenting the Don Stiernberg/ John Carlini Quartet next week at Elgin Community College--ended up Burns' protege and musical partner. While a love for bluegrass and other styles informs his palette, his favorite canvas remains what the Chicago area native has spent a lifetime refining and extending: the vocabulary he first developed from Burns' tutelage.
"I love playing jazz on the mandolin," says Stiernberg. "The fact that it's tuned in fifths means it's symmetrical, so it's something of an improviser's dream--one can find one's ideas quite readily."
"[Stiernberg] is the foremost jazz mandolinist in America today," says Mike Marshall, perhaps the most traveled of all reigning mandolin royalty, stylistically if not geographically. "He's dedicated himself to the Jethro tradition but even beyond that, taking it as a very serious jazz instrument. His feel, just having Chicago in his blood, is so deep. He comes out here [to the San Francisco Bay area], he swings hard. Everybody's just sitting there with their jaws dropped. And I think that these things are sort of cultural and regional--he embodies that urban guy who really knows what swing is about."
Marshall himself has been known to swing. After first dazzling audiences at 19 with the David Grisman Quintet in 1979, Marshall has collaborated with a who's who of musicians, exploring music from other continents, especially South America, and formed lasting partnerships with Montreux, Psychograss, the Modern Mandolin Quartet, and violinist Darol Anger.
"Mike has this incredible depth and dedication," says Stiernberg, "which allow him to make definitive statements in any of the genres he loves, which by the way amount to virtually any style of music: classical, bluegrass, Brazilian choro, jazz. He has multiple layers of nuance that he searches for in pursuit of the heart of the music."
A recent Marshall collaborator has been Nickel Creek mandolinist Chris Thile. (He and Marshall perform Saturday at the Old Town School of Folk Music.) Much of what makes them so engaging together is what they don't do, in that they could play virtually anything at any speed, but choose to play ideas. "It's this beautiful connection we have," says Marshall, "not the usual competitiveness that you would find with guys playing as many notes as we are."
Stiernberg sees good times ahead for the eight-stringed instrument, and believes Thile is one of the reasons.
"There's a renaissance of interest in the mandolin right now," he says, "due in the largest part perhaps to the achievements of Nickel Creek. Just last night at a gig, I had three people ask me if I knew Chris!"
Since his astounding 1994 debut album at age 13, Thile has surpassed expectations by continually raising the bar, from riding the wave of popularity enjoyed by Nickel Creek or stretching string music into new places with fellow iconoclasts like Marshall, Bela Fleck, Mark O'Connor, and Edgar Meyer.
"I'm no different than anyone else," says Stiernberg. "I can't wait to see what he tackles next. Most people have heard his great work on his own music, and playing Bach and so on. I've had the chance to play some jazz tunes with Chris and guess what? He's all over that too!"
RECENT MANDOLIN RECORDINGS
Recommended by David Royko:
Sam Bush: "King Of My World" (Sugar Hill)
Sam Bush & David Grisman: "Hold On, We're Strummin'" (Acoustic Disc)
Don Stiernberg & John Carlini: "By George" (Blue Night)
The John Carlini Quartet with Don Stiernberg: "The Game's Afoot!" (FGM)
Chris Thile & Mike Marshall: "Live Duets" (Sugar Hill)
Chris Thile & Mike Marshall: "Into The Cauldron" (Sugar Hill)
SAM BUSH BAND
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 4
Where: Dominican University Lund Auditorium, 7900 W. Division St., River Forest
Price: $30-$45; 708-488-5000
DON STIERNBERG/ JOHN CARLINI QUARTET
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 27-28
Where: Elgin Community College Arts Center, 1700 Spartan Drive, Elgin
Price: $15; 847-622-0300
CHRIS THILE AND MIKE MARSHALL
When: 7 and 10 p.m. Saturday
Where: Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave.
Price: $21-$25, 773-728-6000
[Photo: Sam Bush]