David Grisman is a bit of a scientist. The mandolin virtuoso wanted to know how much of a musical performance can be attributed to the musician and how much to the instrument. Rather than spout untested opinions, like most of us, Grisman constructed several experiments, each with slightly different variables, to find out.
First, he had two musicians (himself and guitarist Tony Rice) play a different vintage instrument on each of 16 songs to see how the performances varied. He published the research results as a 1994 album called "Tone Poems." He ran the experiment again with Martin Taylor and released the results as "Tone Poems II" in 1995. On 2000's "Tone Poems III," Grisman changed the variables to include resophonic instruments and three musicians (himself, Mike Auldridge and Bob Brozman).
Now the scientist has gone back in the lab and changed the variables again. Instead of having the same musicians and different instruments on each track, he had different musicians play the same instruments. He selected 23 mandolinists (including himself, Ronnie McCoury, Chris Thile and Frank Wakefield) and had them all play his 1922 Gibson "Loar" F-5 and selected 23 guitarists (including Rice, Taylor, Brozman and Jerry Douglas) and had them all play his 1933 Martin OM-45. Grisman recorded 16 solo performances and 15 mandolin-guitar duets and released the results as the new two-CD set, "Tone Poets."
The new results confirm the earlier findings. Each instrument does have a distinct personality that remains consistent in different hands and that can alter a musician's sound. That effect, however, is far weaker than the force of the musician's personality. The 1922 F-5 mandolin, for example, does have a sonic signature, but it sounds very different when handled by a percussive new-grass player like Sam Bush (who duets with Jack Lawrence on "Were You There") compared with a pointillist classical player like Evan Marshall (who solos on "Joyful Variations").
Of course, one can ignore the scientific angle and just enjoy some of the finest mandolin and acoustic guitar pickers in the world.
-- Geoffrey Himes
David Grisman appears Friday at the Music Center at Strathmore.