Mandolinist Chris Thile (Th as in thin; rhymes with freely) faces a dilemma that he shares with other creative figures at his rare ability level: having outstripped other players technically by the time he was about sixteen, he has rapidly moved into new stylistic realms and thereby runs the risk of forgetting who he was musically. In Thile’s case the original stylistic home was bluegrass — never played absolutely straight in his southern California environment, but recognizable enough in the basic shapes of his playing.

Though he’s been compared to Sam Bush, John Duffey, and even Bill Monroe himself, he doesn’t sound like any of those players. Thile excels at creating purling streams of dense musical line that fill in subtle areas of shade behind a vocal melody. He is incredibly fast, but his speed is a matter of grace and of being a step ahead of what’s happening, not of seeming to nearly tear the mandolin apart. Unlike most bluegrass mandolinists, he generally avoids a percussive element in his playing.

As Thile’s talents grew, he took the important step of collaborating with artists who could stretch his musical vision. Since he was eight, he had performed with the guitarist-and-fiddler brother and sister Sean and Sara Watkins, and that group evolved into Nickel Creek, an unclassifiable band that added to bluegrass not only jazz (for the basic progressive-bluegrass equation) but also classical music and alternative rock songs. Nickel Creek accomplished the unlikely feat of taking progressive acoustic music into the pop Top 20. Thile also worked with archprogressive virtuoso mandolinist Mike Marshall, and the two delved into Bach and into some mighty advanced jazz harmonies. They delivered a near-flawless recital at the Ark a couple of years ago.

Cut to the present, as Thile, a veteran at twenty-five, shows up in New York, newly divorced. He joins a group of other young acoustic players and begins to play tunes like Jimmie Rodgers’s “Brakeman’s Blues” from 1928, a country standard. Pain, as it will, seems to have done him good as a songwriter, and the repertoire of his new How to Grow a Band includes Thile originals like the simple country lament “You’re an Angel, and I’m Gonna Cry” and the stark, minimal “I’m Yours If You Want Me.” To hear Thile tell it, his new album, How to Grow a Woman from the Ground, is his return to bluegrass, and indeed it does contain a few numbers that would fit in among the pines at the Milan Bluegrass Festival.

But musically Thile still resides in progressive-bluegrass California, and in Thile’s bluegrass world a line like “You are the devil; stay away from me” can be delivered in a dreamy, meditative tone. How to Grow a Woman includes covers of the White Stripes (“Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”) and the Strokes (“Heart in a Cage,” with profanity intact), along with Gillian Welch’s lyrically artful “Wayside (Back in Time).” In short, Thile’s new music gets back to his roots while incorporating a lot of the new tricks he’s learned along the way.

The Ark may be a bit too small for Thile and the How to Grow a Band when they come to town on Friday, October 27, but the club is a perfect place to appreciate his low-decibel talents.

[Review published October 2006]