The Boston Globe

Grisman bucks trends for individualism

By Susan O’Grady Fox

“I’m all for rugged individualism,” says mandolins David Grisman, whose inspired and distinctly individual music is a refreshing departure from the sort of trend-mongering that dominates so much of the current scene. “I think if you’re in a creative field, you’re obliged to think creatively and do things that are uncommon.  Individual expression – that’s what art is to me.”

Grisman, widely considered to be America’s foremost fusion mandolinist, will perform at the Waterville Valley Festival in New Hampshire tomorrow with his David Grisman Quintet and Sunday at Nightstage in Cambridge. He plays a spirited blend of jazz and bluegrass with just about every genre, from bebop to swing to ethnic thrown in along the way.  His playing is characterized by a driving energy and a quick-witted mix of eccentric twists and flashy turns that make even simple melodies unique.

Difficult to categorize, his music has been called everything from progressive bluegrass to newgrass to “dawg music” (from a nickname of Grisman’s) to new acoustics.  Whatever it is, it builds on the traditions of bluegrass and jazz with elements from other genres without losing the integrity of its origins.  Furthermore, Grisman has a knack for writing in a way that allows for improvisation while maintaining melody line and not failing prey to what he calls “musical anarchy”.

Grisman, Who for many years has waged a one-man campaign for mandolin recognition, is currently involved In something of a campaign for musicians to take their craft seriously, “A lot of the so-called ‘fusion music’ – which I guess my music is, a lot of it – I don’t think Is well grounded. It doesn’t display the depth of understanding or the background it purports to come from. Musicians, to be good musicians, have a responsibility to study what came before.  You have to listen to the old masters.  That’s where the subtlety comes in.”

Grisman says he hones his own craft by studying Thelonious Monk, Billy Strayhorn, Earl Scruggs and his old master, Bill Monroe.  I don’t really practice that much,” he continues, “but regular rehearsals and gigs keep me in shape.  Still more than 50 percent of it is mental.  Probably more important than keeping the hands in shape is to keep the head in shape.  I’m studying intonation and rhythm and melody-writing.”

Another necessary part of any musician’s craft, Grisman explains, is having a particular affinity for the instrument. “I started on piano, and later, when I got into jazz I went out and bought an alto sax, but it was hard for me to produce a good sound, whereas on the mandolin it was easy.  I was able to master the basic technique instantly. I’m sure Stan Getz, however, probably the first time he blew into a saxophone, made a good sound.”

Part of it is just physical; the rest he says is his desire to play the mandolin. “It’s pretty simple really, I’ve just endeavored to make that my musical voice, since I seem to have an affinity for mandolin-playing, and I was attracted to the sound it makes, kind of like combining violin and guitar.”

Grisman describes the mandolin’s sound as “roundish”.  He says it’s a sound that works well in solo as well as with other instrumentation: “I’m currently working on incorporating drums and percussion as well as different kinds of guitar styles into my music.” Not surprisingly then, Grisman’s lineup Sunday will include – in addition to violinist Jim Buchanan (who has been with Grisman for three years) and James Kerwin on upright acoustic bass – Dimitri Vandellos on guitars. “He’s a monster guitar player who’ll be playing acoustic steel, acoustic classical and hollow-body electric.” Grisman says, “And on drums and percussion is George Marsh, another monster, who is probably San Francisco’s premier percussionist.”

Working with a drummer is relatively new for Grisman.  “Without drums,” it’s much harder to keep rhythm.  I like having instruments now that don’t play chords, though George is probably the most melodic drummer I know. We’re working on some new tunes, especially a lot of jazz standards, since I’m thinking of recording a first album of standards.

“Music is a living art.” he concludes, “It’s always growing and changing. Music is just music; It’s either good or it’s bad, and if it’s going to be good, you’ve got to respect your craft. In addition to everything else, that only comes with a true love for the music.”

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