A concert at Carnegie Hall, guest shots on the "Tonight Show," a record deal with Warner Bros.: David Grisman's itinerary of late isn't exactly the sawdust-strewn club circuit traveled by most mandolin players.
His recent success, nearly 20 years in the making, won't be duplicated by anyone soon. But several string bands are finding the climate for acoustic music a lot more hospitable. Two of them have new albums that show Grisman's influence, and Grisman himself plays on one of them -- the dubut of an exceptionally gifted and innovative quintet, the Tim Ware Group (Kaleidoscope F 13).
Record labels didn't look kindly on Ware's music at first. In his liner notes he bluntly describes their typical reaction: "No category, no contract." That may not be a very convincing argument, but it is understandable given Ware's insatiably eclectic tastes and the industry's penchant for neat packages.
His music is an exotic quilt of folk, jazz and classical patterns stitched together, pulled apart and made whole again in such varied and intricate arrangements that the end result seems to have taxed even his own descriptive powers.
The album is sinuous journey through European, Middle Eastern and South American traditions as well as our own. Violinist John Tenney and cellist Sharon O'Connor -- both classically trained -- occasionally lend a dark, moody chamber-music quality to the surroundings. But more often it's Tenney's darting gypsy flights, the dovetailing exchanges between Ware (on mandolin) and Bob Alenko (on guitar) and the jazzy extrapolations of bassist Ken Miller that make their synthesis so enjoyable.
Grisman and two members of his own quintet (Darol Anger and Mike Marshall) join Ware on "Spiral Moons," a delicately orchestrated piece that calls upon the madolin's lesser-known relatives, the mandola and mando cello.
Like Bill Monroe before him, Grisman is fond of using the mandolin as both a lead and a rhythm instrument. On "Spiral Moon," though, he and Ware share equal time sketching the serene melody, their overlapping tones falling like raindrops gently and inexorably into place. The effect resembles a kind of pointillistic bluegrass.
Listeners in search of straightforward string-band jazz may find Ware's approach too low-keyed or self-absorbed for their tastes. The Tony Rice Unit offers an alternative on "Mar West" (Rounder 0125).
Since leaving the Grisman quintet well over a year ago, Rice has released two albums under his own name. Although both parallel some of Grisman's excursions in the past, "Mar West" is clearly the more sophisticated of the two.
On it Rice rewards his companions (including old bluegrass buddy Sam Bush) with several strong compositions. As he did on his first album, Rice pulls a page out of the jazz past. Miles Davis' "Nardis" receives a warm and gentle treatment that favorably recalls Stephane Grappelli's recent collaborations with Grisman. Violinist Richard Greene -- whose sweeping lines can cut across textured rhythms at will -- is unusually reserved, reflecting Davis' subdued colors in his tone.
Again, Rice chooses a blues and a waltz to vary the tempo. The blues is particularly effective. The madolin has never enjoyed much of a reputation as a blues instrument, and apart from a few exceptions -- Johnny Young comes to mind -- hardly anyone has even attempted to play it in that vein. On "Whoa, Baby Everyday I Wake Up With The Blues" Sam Bush picks up the theme where Rice and Greene leave off and has no problem holding is own.
Much of "Mar West" is charged with energy and drive. The rapid-fire single-note flourishes traded between Rice and Bush, the precision ensemble passages spelled out in unisons and harmonies, the clipped and incessant rhythms are all hard to resist. Moreover, Rice emerges as a stronger musician and composer on his second outing as a leader.
It's still too early to tell whether he will also develop the necessary skills as an improviser to overcome the obvious limitations of string-band jazz. If not, one album by the Tony Rice Unit will always sound quite like the next.