After all the music he’s been through, David Grisman is still something of a purist. The man who brought the mandolin into the homes of millions who’d written it off as prehistoric; who has adapted his instrument form bluegrass to jazz, funk, and latin music, raking in ire from folk traditionalists along the way; the first and foremost fusion mandolinist of our day–still believes jazz means Lester Young. But the purist isn’t complaining too loudly about his new album, Acousticity, having a good run up the jazz charts.
Acousticity is the first Grisman album to feature a full-time percussionist, and also sports a horn section on a couple of numbers. “I’ve tried to use the mandolin as a voice for playing lots of different things that I like. And I think if you do something well, people will like it,” he says, not fearing change in his music as much as inviting it.
A high school devotee to bluegrass legends like Bill Monroe, Frank Wakefield, Bob Osborne, and Jethro Burns, Grisman not only loves the instrument and the music but is an authority on the history of mandolin in classical music and folk cultures around the world. Grisman was publisher of the Mandolin World News for several years and currently contributes to Frets.
After attending New York University in the early 1960s, and shuffling around with bands like the Even Dozen Jug Band and Earth Opera, Grisman settled in San Francisco. Seeds of the Grisman Quintet were sown at a jam session at SF’s Great American Music Hall in 1974. Violinist Richard Greene, bassist Joe Carroll, mandolinist Todd Phillips, fiddle player Darol Anger, and guitarist Tony Rice joined Grisman, and were enthusiastic about theis acoustic chamber music. The progressive bluegrass that became known (from a nickname of Grisman’s) as “dawg music” seemed simple, melody-wise, but kept people cued in with unusual twists and flashy turns. “You couldn’t just walk out and start playing the material I had,” says Grisman, “like you could bluegrass music if you know that form. So it took awhile to put it together. Everybody kind of volunteered, so it was from that interest that I formed a band.”
The jazz world took notice when Stephane Grappelli and Eddie Gomez joined on for Hot Dawg in 1979, and Grappelli joined the quintet again for a live LP in 1981. “There are thousands of violinists all over the world, but I could hear one bar of Stephane Grappelli and know it’s Stephane. The guy can play such technically amazing things and still have so much heart and feeling,” Grisman says, almost reverentially.
Purists should definitely check out Grisman’s 1983 release, Mandolin Abstractions, recorded with his former mandolin student Andy Statman. The eight “spontaneous compositions” are among the most adventurous Grisman has yet recorded. “The first notes we played in the studio were caught on tape. That’s the kind of music we had played together for 10 years. We’d just sit down and start playing anything, and it always blew our minds, so we decided to try and do that in a studio.” Statman? Grisman only referes to him as “probably the most progressive mandolin player in the world.”
Grisman recently completed work on a Twilight Zone episode called “Welcome To Winfield,” putting four instruments down on the soundtrack, and is readying The New David Grisman Quintet. “I like the bluegrass element, but I like to have the jazz element,” he says of his band, which features guitarist Dimitri Vandellos, bassist Kerwin Jones, the jazz world’s George Marsh on drums, and fiddler Jim Buchanon.
RT: You’ve obviously been influenced by a lot more than just bluegrass music.
DG: Oh yeah. I used to listen to Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley and the Platters and the Five Satins when I was in high school. I like all kinds of music–rock & roll, classical, ethnic music. I used to listen to a lot of Indian music. In the 1960s I got interested in jazz, and now it’s a big influence. My son is the expert on contemporary rock. He’s in a power trio and he really likes Rush. I can kind of appreciate the rock & roll that’s gone into jazz, but the rest of it hasn’t gotten beyond Chuck Berry or the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, as far as I’m concerned. They’ve taken it as far as it can go. It’s sort of like bluegrass. There’s nothing else you can do with it, so people that are just doing the same old thing don’t impress me. In fact they depress me. I don’t think there’s any point in doing something not as well as it was done 20 years ago. I guess I’m old-fashioned but I’d rather listen to rock & roll from 20 years ago. It was more creative. It’s gotten too formula-ized.
RT: How did you first get interested in playing the mandolin?
DG: I met Ralph Rinzler, a real knowledgeable folk musician, folklorist, and mandolin player, in the early ’60s. He actually came to my high school English class to give us a demonstration of folk music, and I heard him play mandolin. Some little screw got turned[laughs], and it’s been like this ever since. He was playing in a group called the Greenbriar Boys, and he actually discovered and was the first guy to record Doc Watson. He was involved with the Friends Of Old-Time Music in New York City, and they’d put on concerts of traditional, white folk music–bluegrass. And so I met all of these people traipsing through his house in Passaic, New Jersey–the Stanley Brothers or Bill Monroe. Three of us who went to the same high school formed a group, and we used to go over and help Ralph work in his backyard, and he’d have tapes playing–like Bill Monroe shows from 1956. One day he drove me down to an outdoor country music park in Rising Sun, maryland, and that’s where I first heard Bill Monroe.
RT: Were your other friends listening to bluegrass too?
DG: These two other friends were, but … we were the odd men out. I mean, we started out with the Kingston Trio, but we quickly graduated to more traditional–the real thing, you know.
RT: The Kingstron Trio being…
DG: Well, just being more commercial. We got into real folk singers who were sitting on their back porch in Kentucky for 50 years playing the banjo. You know, the sources. People like Clarence “Tom” Ashley, Dock Boggs, and Roscoe Holcomb. I was a purist then. Ralph showed me where a lot of the stuff came from, and I found that more interesting. The real Tom Dooley is vastly different from what the Kingston Trio recorded, you know. It’s more primitive but it’s more real. I’ve got a good appreciation for roots. And then the instrumental flash of bluegrass sort of drove me crazy. I remember very clearly the first time I heard a bluegrass record. It had immediate impact–the banjo largely. It was a cut on a record called Mountain Music Bluegrass Style. It was Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys doing Whitehouse Blues, which is real fast. It’s a folk song about the assassination of McKinley.
RT: Is it the same kind of instrumental flash you hear in jazz?
DG: Yeah, although harmonically it’s not similar. Vicious tempos, though. In bluegrass you don’t improvise as much. Most of the guys usually write a solo–compose it and play it pretty much the same every time. I guess Charlie Parker pretty much played them the same every time too, if you analyze it. You can tell it’s Charlie Parker. I don’t think there’s anything that’s really, totally improvised. You can’t be in a vacuum. You’ve played something all your life, and at this moment you’re going to impprovisee; well, it’s still going to sound like whomever it is. That means that it’s not total spontaneous creativity. It’s just the amount of freedom. But you can look at it like one man’s improvisation is another man’s composition. In other words, it’s how dramatic you want to make the differences. I think it just doesn’t matter if what you hear is good.
RT: Your new record, Acousticity, is the first to feature a drummer/percussionist throughout. How did you decide on session ace Hal Blaine?
DG: I always loved Hal Blained’s work He doesn’t play stock things. He invents things that become stock. But the way he plays them it’s on another level, because he is the creator. He made up things that people play every day. I worked on a session with him years ago, and I just thought he would be real good for it.
RT: He did some nice things with percussion when he wasn’t on drums.
DG: Yeah, he did overdub a lot with that–congas. Actually on the tune Acousticity that middle section, which is a mandolin solo with conga drums, was an afterthought. The tune was cut without that, and then we went to Europe for five weeks. During that European tour I had the idea of making a section in the middle where I would play and the audience would clap. When we got back from the tour I said, “Gee, this thing is working out so good it’s too bad we couldn’t put it on the record.” Then I saw a way of doing it, where I opened up the tape and just measured off 33 bars of a click track and inserted that, and then overdubbed over that. I was going to have handclaps, but Hal suggested the congas in there. I’ve always liked cutting tape. I do my own editing. I like to manipulate music that way rather than overdubbing a lot of times, unless it’s planned. On a lot of my albums I’ve played the rhythm mandolin and then overdubbed the solos. I like the rhythm mandolin. When I’ve had second mandolin players I’ve always wanted them to play rhythm, but I always get these hot mandolin players–all they want to do is solo and blow the boss off the stage [laughs].
RT: Rule Number One: Don’t blow the boss off the stage.
DG: I don’t mind. I worked with a second mandolin player for the first four years of my band, up until 1980 or early ’81. Mark O’Connor, the guitar player, broke his arm. Mike Marshall was the second mandolin player, so Mike just picked up the guitar and it’s been a quartet ever since. I’m planning to take a quintet out this year, but instead of a second mandolin it’ll have what I really needed all the time–a good drummer who can play quiet enough for a mandolin to be heard. I don’t need a drummer, but it’s really having a liberating effect on me.
RT: Solidifying the rhythms?
DG: Yeah. You know, George marsh and Hal Blaine are both very melodic drummers, very colorful drummers, but they don’t have to really deal with tonality. In the format that I’ve developed without drums, all the string instruments have to function as rhythm instruments at the same time they’re playing chords and notes. With a drummer it’s a rhythmic thing. It frees me up and I imagine everybody else. But I think I’ve develped an acute rhythmic proclivity from not having a drummer, so that a bad drummer would drive me nuts. And there are very few good ones, because rhythm is hard.
RT: George Marsh is something of a surprising choice on drums, because a lot of his playing in the past has been along freer lines.
DG: Right. Well, he’s developing a new style–Dawg Drums. He and Hal Blaine. My music is essentially a group music. It has a lot of soloing in it, but it’s a group sound. So it requires members to be supporting. There’s basically only one thing that’s going on that people are supposed to be listening to, whether it’s the melody or the guitar solo, whatever. In many forms of jazz it’s sort of like everybody is soloing, but I arrange my music just to bring out simple songs and melodies, rather than musical anarchy or freedom, whichever you want to call it.
RT: Listening to some of your earlier material that doesn’t have drums, sometimes I think I hear drums in there anyway.
DG: I’ve gotten a lot of rhythmic patterns from drummers, and the kinds of tunes that I’ve been writing in recent years people are used to hearing with drums. Eddie Shaughnessy played drums on one track on al album called Dawg jazz. And he told me that he tells his drum students to listen to my records to hear thythm without drums–that you don’t need drums to have that rhythm. Drummers aren’t the only musicians in the world that are supposed to have good time. It’s everybody’s responsibility, but I think a lot of groups tend to rely on the drummer. In my group they haven’t been ble to do that. I’ve had to get on peoples’ cases at time, and it’s tough. It is tough without drums.
Yeah, I give everybody a hard time, but George seems to dig it. It’s a change. He says those jazz guys just go to the fif and play and nobody ever tells anybody what to do. I don’t really give guys a hard time. If they’re prone to not wanting to hear things like that then ti might be a hard time, but actually ti’s helping them get into the music. I just have a understanding of it. If it’s something I’m learning from George, he can give me the hard time. I just know where all the accents are, and I think nort of arranging-wise. I can hear what things need and what they don’t need.
RT: You’ve got a horn section on a few tunes on Awousticity. They mix well with the mandolin on Nu Monia.
DG: Those horns were an afterthought. I’d cut it with strings, and thought I should balance that with some punchy horns. Pee Wee Ellis didn’t have all the arrangements together when we went into the studio, and one of his regular guys wos sick, so we were punching in these parts and I never heard it as a whole. I just had to get the parts on tape in the allotted time. I lostened to it bawk and thought there were some gapo in the parts on Nu Monia and Acousticity. So I lifted off some of the horn licks, sunk them back onto the multi-track in other places. You can always use an extra “deeeaaa daaa.”
RT: I was surprised to hear you doing a funky thing like Acousticity, but then remembered a song of yours from a few years back, Dawg Funk.
DG: I could have arranged that the same way. It other words. this album isn’t a new concept for me. I sort of had it in the back of my mind that I would always do something like this. I like all styles, and I think they all benefit from learning. There’s a kind of music from Brazil called choro– it’s sort of Brazilian Dawg music–that I’ve been listening to a lot. One of its chief protagonists is a mandolin player named Jaco do Bandolin. It’s great music with all these wonderful rhythms and syncopations, but on mandolins and guitars and percussion.
A lot of jazz musicians look at bluegrass and say that’s just “boom-chick boom-chick._ It’s really not just that. There are people that have elevated all that to an art form. And there are bluegrass purists that say jazz in just a bunch of random notes. They’re both basically narrow-minded viewpoints. Somebody should be able to play like Wes Montgomery and Lester Flatt and Freddie Green and Laurindo Almeida and Andre Segovia and Jimi Hendrix. I’m naturally attracted to people that are interested in all those things.