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Acoustic Alchemy: Instrumental Albums Rooted In Bluegrass

Detail from the cover of Ben Krakauer's Hidden Animals, by Iliad Sabchi.

Born mostly in California in the 1970s, the fusion known variously as jazzgrass, spacegrass, and Dawg music (after mandolinist David “Dawg” Grisman) has inspired a wide community of players across generations. It’s a super cool pocket of American music that remains enthralling for exploratory players and listeners alike. I’ve been especially interested in this sound and scene since discovering Grisman, Tony Rice, Béla Fleck, and their musical kin a long time ago, and lately we seem to be in a fertile period with excellent younger players mixing and matching in various groups to build on the improvisational picking and acoustic arranging tradition.

Here are seven excellent and moving albums - in order of release between last fall and last month - that feel right for summer afternoon hanging out or for attentive listening with your eyes closed.

Jeff Picker -Liquid Architecture - 10/21/22
Nashville bass player Jeff Picker is having a big 2023. He’s the fourth member of Nickel Creek on their big comeback run, and he was recently nominated for the Americana Music Association Instrumentalist of the Year award. About the same time, he married his longtime sweetheart and sometime touring partner, the Grammy-winning acoustic star Sarah Jarosz. But before all that lovely stuff happened, he released two albums as an artist, 2020’s With The Bass In Mind and last fall’s Liquid Architecture. The latter is sweeping, charming, and flowing, leaning more on composed ensemble intricacies than outright jamming. Bass players tend to be excellent orchestrators and architects of musical ideas, which is rather explicitly the note struck by the title. The chief lead melodic instruments here are the mystical fiddle of Billy Contreras and the alto saxophone of Eddie Barbash. Usually when there’s a horn in jazz adjacent music, one hears drums, but there’s nary a stick nor skin here - just deep pocketed time and some of the best musicians in this scene rendering elegant and sturdy structures.

Ross Martin -Sylvan Tunnel - 11/15/22
New York’s Ross Martintaps one of the seminal figures in newgrass music - fiddler Darol Anger - to join his front line for this moving jazz excursion, his second as a leader. Also here, longtime trio partner Matt Flinner on mandolin, sax player Dominic Lalli and - remarkably - the late great trumpet master Ron Miles, whose elegant ensemble playing with Martin on “Moment Of Invisibility” is a standout on Sylvan Tunnel. The rhythm section of bass player Greg Garrison (Leftover Salmon) and Marc Dalio on drums builds a sturdy structure under this music making, satisfying the more groove-oriented fans among you. The title track is sweet and slow with luscious harmonic movement that only a schooled jazz cat would write and lyrical guitar that will touch anybody who loves Bill Frisell. Sylvan means wooded and pastoral, and if they gave awards for living up to a title, this mellow but sophisticated release would be a fine nominee.

Joe K. Walsh -If Not Now, Who?- 1/6/23
This is the first album in this selection to open with or even include a banjo, and it turns out to be Matt Flinner, mando man from Ross Martin’s album, speaking to the versatility and interconnectedness of these musicians. Joe K. Walsh, a mandolinist based in Maine, is a member of Darol Anger’s band Mr. Sun with Grant Gordy and bassist Aidan O’Donnell (who make their own appearances soon). Joe has played top-tier old-time with Bruce Molsky, bluegrass with the Gibson Brothers, and modern acoustic music with the late great band he co-founded in Boston, Joy Kills Sorrow. On his latest, Walsh writes and leads ten unhurried selections that glow with melody and shimmering steel strings. That opening tune “Madison” is a bluesy sway that gets established with banjo and mandolin and then lets twin fiddles (John Mailander and Ella Jordan) swell like an unsober Bill Monroe number. The title tune is a stately theme that finds the players improvising in an ensemble way rather than standing out as individuals. “The Bills,” written with Watchhouse’s Andrew Marlin, is a tribute to Mr. Monroe and Mr. Frisell. “Tom” is a favorite of mine, with its glimpses of dissonance against a lyrical flow.

Ben Garnett -Imitation Fields - 3/17/23
The youngest musician on this list turned in the wildest album. Ben Garnett grew up in Texas and pursued rock fusion guitar before falling for newgrass while studying jazz at the famous University of North Texas program. Now the 29-year-old lives in Nashville and tours with the crossover bluegrass bands of Missy Raines, who was among those encouraging him to make a statement as an artist. Working with guitarist Chris “Critter” Eldridge and bassist Paul Kowert of Punch Brothers, Garnett built a sonic world all his own. Passages of electronically twisted field recordings weave together with intricate neoclassical music played by luminaries like Billy Contreras and Brittany Haas on fiddle and Matthew Davis on banjo. It sways from somber and graceful to boisterous and noisy, even in single songs like the lengthy and highly dynamic “Moriarty.” My favorite might be the cyclical, gradually evolving “Nepal.” It’s brainy stuff, but that doesn’t mean you won’t feel a suite of emotions if you have the guts to take the whole ride.

Ben Krakauer -Hidden Animals - 3/22/23
Recorded in a rustic waterside burg in Maine by high-level musicians from some pretty rustic places themselves, Hidden Animals is a beautiful hybrid creature. Composer and banjo player Ben Krakauer is an ethnomusicologist on the faculty of Warren Wilson College in the lovely Smoky Mountain town of Swannanoa, NC. Yet the music on his second album is an especially urbane take on string band jazz. Tunes like “Tidewater” and “And Bertie” slink along with a hip-hop flow. “On Hold” builds on a slow-wave theme that trades focus between banjo and the violin/cello combination of Duncan Wickel and Ella Jordan, fiddler in bluegrass band Mile Twelve. Touches of the banjoist’s expertise in South Asian music are felt, and they visit the full bluegrass roll sometimes on tunes like “Dogboy Breakdown.” The drumming of Nick Falk, Floyd, VA music educator and married collaborator with Dori Freeman, subtly underpins everything and gives Krakauer’s intricate but easy going constructions extra spark and trajectory, not that it would lack them otherwise.

Grant Gordy -Peripheral Visions - 3/24/23
Grant Gordy isn’t just an acolyte of the David Grisman approach but an alumnus of the Dawg-father’s own band, so it’s little surprise that he’s an exceptional and versatile guitarist who’s made great records with an archtop electrified instrument in traditional jazz mode and others in the flatpicking newgrass way. Peripheral Visions is of the latter sort, with Alex Hargreaves (of Billy Strings band) in lieu of a horn, while mandolinist Dominic Leslie (Molly Tuttle’s Golden Highway and Hawktail) plays some of the drummer’s role, with crisp shuffles and chops. Bass player Aidan O’Donnell is invaluable in giving these tunes their direction, shaping some of the most free and creative grooves in this school of music, neither bluegrass, nor swing, nor Latin, but hovering in the netherworld with anchors in all three. “Espionage” cleverly mingles a film noir tone with sunny California shoreline imagery. The serene “Elegy For Tony Rice” shapes the influence of the guitar hero into a lovely ride. “Cloud of Witnesses” toward the end gets free and weird for a while before changing moods to something autumnal and fluid and giving way to the funky and infectious “International Klein Blues.” It’s an immaculately conceived and performed string jazz record that proves the resonance of the original Grisman concept.

Jon Stickley Trio -Meantime’s Up - 4/28/23
Few artists embody Asheville, NC’s spirit of transgressive roots music as completely as guitarist Jon Stickley and his funky fusion trio with violinist Lyndsay Pruett and drummer Hunter Deacon. They’ve been at it for quite some time now over at least four albums, yet they continue to conjure new things to do with limited instrumentation, making judicious use of effects and alternative picking techniques, even making you think there’s a bass player when there isn’t one. They whip harder than any of the other ensembles here, and they can do so with a metronomic precision, conjuring a kind of Blue Ridge Krautrock on tunes like “Riders Of The Night Sky” and “Triumph In Between.” “Hunter’s Arc” structures Celtic themes in quirky time signatures, while “Preston’s Tune” is a distilled shot of punchy newgrass where Stickley’s flatpicking is on particularly striking display. Unique among these albums, the JST turns its drummer loose as Deacon turns in two full-length drum solos titled “Causeway” parts 1 and 2, including the album’s closing track. If there’s a new way to be bold with acoustic music, Stickley and company will take it on.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org