San Diego Union

Grisman is ‘Dawg’ gone good
By George Varga

In the talented bands of David Grisman, jazz and bluegrass not only become compatible, they sound as if they’ve been happy mates for years.  Of course it’s been more than a decade since Grisman transformed these seemingly disparate musical idioms into a fruitful union – much to the delight of enlightened jazz and bluegrass fans.

A mandolin virtuoso who has singlehandedly redefined his instrument’s possibilities; Grisman combines bop, swing, funk and breezy Latin stylings with infectious jigs and reels that would be welcome at any Ozark Mountain banjo and fiddle contest.  He has named his arresting fusion “Dawg” music.  It’s a whimsical name for a scintillating musical synthesis that is as delightful and invigorating as a dip in a mountain stream on a summer day.

At the Belly Up Tavern Sunday night, Grisman and his superb quartet delivered nearly two hours of sparkling, impeccably performed music.

Striking an even balance between his original compositions and jazz classics such as Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz,” Tadd Dameron’s “Good Bait” and Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages,” the bearded mandolinist and his bandmates performed with consistent passion an precision.

In drummer George Marsh, bassist Jim Kerwin and guitarist Dimitri Vandellos, Grisman has three especially gifted musical partners.  Together they produced a series of stirring solos and fleet ensemble work that exuded warmth and charm, and repeatedly scaled heights other musicians only dream of.

At times, the four instrumentalists achieved the harmonic sophistication and precise contrapuntal interplay of a world-class string quartet, as they created a lattice like tapestry of finely woven melodies.   Yet even at their most refined, they never lost the swinging pulse that gives both jazz and bluegrass its rhythmic appeal.   What resulted was simultaneously earthy and sophisticated, diverse yet direct.

As for Grisman, his improvisational ingenuity, rich melodic flair and rapid-fire lines were in the best jazz tradition. That he was able to accomplish such feats on a mandolin made his performance all the more impressive.  Likewise, his finely crafted compositions boasted solid foundations, clean, well-defined lines and the meticulous attention to detail that marks the work of a master artisan.

As a result, even when he and his fellow musicians engaged in daring interplay, neither they nor their listeners lost site of the direction of the song at hand.  By doing so, Grisman provided compelling proof that, while this “dawg” may be a mixed-breed, it’s still a winner.

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