Thursday, March 01, 2007

Bravo: three memorable mandolins

Mandolin master Mike Marshall has had successful duet collaborations both with Hamilton de Holanda, the Brazilian choro virtuoso, and Chris Thile, the hotshot mandolinist formerly of Nickel Creek who is the popular choice for most innovative musician on the acoustic music circuit today.

But never before have the three played together on the same stage--until last weekend's Mandolins at Midnight set during the Wintergrass festival in Tacoma WA.

As the organizers hoped, the chemistry between the three was explosive, producing a mix of choro, new compositions, and deconstructed bluegrass that left listeners amazed at having witnessed three inventive instrumentalists set loose in a musical playground.

"For me, this is a dream come true," said Marshall. He explained that Thile and de Holanda had met previously but never played together before the previous night's rehearsal in Marshall's hotel room. "Tonight you saw it go to another level," he said, before launching into a jazzy encore of Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely."

Playing in unison or in counterpoint, the contrast between Marshall's and Thile's F-style mandolins and de Holanda's 10-string bandolim was striking. At times during the set, Marshall added a sonorous low end with his mandocello while de Holanda shifted to bouzuki for the encore.

The stage manner of the three players accentuated the musical lovefest, full of soulful gazes and more body English than you'd find in a London brothel. There was no question that they were having as much fun as the audience.

The set included highly improvisational renditions of "Fisher's Hornpipe," "Lay Me a Palette on Your Floor," Marshall compositions "Egypt" and "Gator Strut," and several choro pieces including "Desvairada."

Audience members who had heard Marshall and de Holanda were familiar with the rhythmic, polyphonic choro style, but Thile's playing in this style may have been a revelation. After all, choro is de Holanda's native musical language and Marshall has studied it intensively. Thile is a relative newcomer to the idiom but he delivered licks every bit as fluent as the masters.

Possibly the highlight was the original piece that the three composed. Working from a rough framework, each musician had composed a piece of it working independently, and then the whole came together on stage.

It is unclear if the performance was just a one-time event, or if there could be a future "three mandos" project in the works. Thile of course has his hands full with his several new bands, but one hopes he'll find time to reprise this threesome--or if not, that a recording of this unique performance is made available. If a recording is released, don't hesitate to buy it.

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