"Dawg Music" didn't exist, so David Grisman invented it. Now, with the release of "Mondo Mando" (Warner Bros. BSK3618), it threatens to take over the world.
By any name Grisman's mandolin mania would be hard to describe. Maybe now more than ever: "Mondo Mando" (or, as a friend put it, "Around the world on 800 strings") makes the usual references to a blend of bluegrass and swing styles seem rather inadequate.
There are, to be sure, a few intricately arranged and crisply executed traditionally based numbers included, and they compare favorably with Grisman's best efforts in the past, tunes that will undoubtedly keep old fans happy. "Cedar Hill" and "Fanny Hill" are prime examples. Here is lively mandolin mountain music, with Grisman's virtuosity framed by fleet performances from guest guitarist Tony Rice and fiddlers Darol Anger and Mark O'Connor.
"Dawg Funk" and "Albuquerque Turkey" are cast in a similar if somewhat more lighthearted vein. The former poses no threat to Grandmaster Flash, but its brief theme has an insinuating appeal all its own; the latter is spry, full of darting lines and evanescent harmonies.
Then, too, there's Django Reinhardt's "Anouman," as close to the feel and flavor of Grisman's recent recordings with Stephane Grappelli as anything on the album. This isn't, however, just another opportunity for Grisman to display his awesome speed and dexterity; it's a contemplative ballad, sensitvely performed not just by Grisman but by Anger (on violectra) and bassist Rob Wasserman.
What's left? Well, the world according to Grisman. "Japan (Op. 23)" derives much of its exotic appeal through the use of a koto, a Japanese zither. Ushering the piece to a sure and tranquil close, the koto proves to be yet another interesting voice in Grisman's growing plectral menagerie. Also interesting is "Caliente." The tune alternates between a desolate windswept soundscape and sprightly ensemble passages that resolve the tension if only for the moment.
Then to "Mondo Mando," the title track, which finds Grisman pulling strings in seventh heaven. He's joined by the Kornos String Quartet "in remembrance of the free spirit of Federico DeLaurentis." As complex and as varied as this orchestration is, it consistently caputures a freedom of spirit. This is Grisman at his most ambitious, daring and inventive, pushing his music into more sophisticated spheres without sacrificing any of its original zest and energy. Mando magic.
Tony Rice, Grisman's star pupil who left the original quintet a few years ago, has also coined a word for the music he's currently playing: spacegrass. Having spent six years with Grisman, Rice was instrumental in the development of "dawg music" so it's no surprise that spacegrass has much in common with it beyond similar instrumentation (guitar, mandolin, fiddle and bass).
Up until now Rice has recruited numerous progressive bluegrass musicians to assist him on his own albums, including most of the Grisman clan. But with the release of "Still Inside" (Rounder 0150) the Tony Rice Unit has come into its own as a working quartet.
Like Grisman, Rice's speed is blinding at times; he couples that talent with an unusually sure sense of rhythm and detail. The combination is essential to spacegrass: the crisply articulated, often dovetailng melodies; the dancing instrumental flourishes; the torrid unison passages. Rice's "Within Specs," for example, is played with all the precision its name implies yet at a pace that would send most flat pickers packing.
Even so, some of Rice's finest moments come when he is playing at a less hectic tempo. "Devlin" is a lovely and lyrical reading of a song he once recorded with Grisman, and Early Klugh's "Vonetta," brisk but spacious, is equally easy on the ears.
One caveat: bluesgrass fans who've come to regret Rice's gradual shift from his early Clarence White style to a more jazz-influenced approach won't find much to cheer about here. Only number one is arranged in a decidedly bluegrass fashion; the nimble "Birdland Breakdown" in which mandolinist John Reischman and violinist Fred Carpenter are allowed plenty of room for spirited interplay. Elsewhere, "Still Inside" makes up for its lack of traditional warmth and charm with several vibrant and imaginative performances.
If anything, Cowboy Jazz is blessed with a surfeit of warmth and charm. Western swing enthusiasts unfamiliar with this locally based sextet are in for a real surprise. The band's debut album, "That's What I Like About the West" (Rounder 0149), is an exuberant mix of swing standards and originals, all tailored by Stetson. Sometimes the band sounds as if the Andrews Sisters and Asleep at the Wheel had joined forces -- three-part female harmonies riding herd over rolling, frictionless rhythms, piano, fiddle and pedal steel guitar.
This is music in which the songs of Bo Wills, Hank Williams, Cab Calloway and Commander Cody all happily comingle. It's bright, engaging and infectious and should bring Cowboy Jazz a much larger following in no time at all.