Darol Anger & Mike Marshall
Acoustic music in far left field
by James M. Manheim
Darol Anger and Mike Marshall play music that starts at the meeting point of bluegrass and jazz and can find its way into a classical concert hall without too much trouble. The genre doesn't really have a name apart from the barely informative "new acoustic music," but banjoist Bela Fleck has shown that it can pack a hall. A small group of practitioners, mostly from northern California and descended from the seminal David Grisman Quintet, have pushed the music even farther into left field than Fleck does, and have crafted dense compositions that require and repay close listening. True to the California spirit, this music is also more laid back than Fleck's flowing virtuoso displays.
Anger usually plays the violin (sometimes calling it a fiddle if it's playing bluegrasslike figures), and Marshall the mandolin or the lower and larger mandocello, which he calls "one of the great undiscovered compositional playgrounds of our time." Their duos are mostly originals, but some of them interact in complex ways with existing music: "Who Had Whom?" from the duo's new Woodshop album is described by Anger as "a new entry in the game of 'How much can you make a song sound like another song and not be the same song'"; it alights frequently on different parts of "Norwegian Wood" but is not an improvisation upon it. The extended harmonies and the involved, syncopated rhythms are basically those of modern jazz, and both players have collaborated extensively with jazz musicians.
Their music is not simply jazz played on rather inhospitable instruments, however. What steers it back in the bluegrass direction is all the wood and wire of the instruments involved. Percussion has a very limited role, and the focus instead is on string textures, with the basic violin and mandolin modified and retuned and extended in various ways Anger plays the rare baritone violin, and the final track on Woodshop, "The Creep," credits something called an "Electro-Banjo Creepola,"
which is as weird as it sounds. On Woodshop, the two players are multitracked ("Replaceitall" has no fewer than seven violin parts along with a baritone violin rhythm track) to form a small, intensively varied, mostly acoustic two-man orchestra.
The booklet for the album notes that the works they have created for this orchestra roughly half the music is written by each collaborator, with the composer taking the lead musically "would be difficult to perform live." But Anger and Marshall will attempt to do just that at the Ark on Sunday, September 30, and with musicians this talented, you just know that part of the fun will be in hearing how they reduce their complex creations to a live show.
[Review published September 2007]