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On The String: Four Decades Of ‘Fiddlistics’ From Darol Anger

Darol Anger

The conversation in Episode 211 of The String concentrates on two albums released more than forty years apart and the artist who made a great deal happen for the American fiddle in the years between. Darol Anger is the cat in question, a composer, player and improviser who has obliterated the distinction between the fiddle and violin with insightful fusions of bluegrass, classical chamber music and jazz. His influence on roots music fiddlers under fifty would be hard to overstate, because of his far-reaching ideas about technique and his warm and youthful enthusiasm as a teacher and about music in general.

“He just loves it so much. I think that sort of just flows out of him,” says Brittany Haas, a key Anger protégé and a leading fiddle player who joins me for a supporting interview in this hour. “But I think he also really believes in the process of giving back the knowledge, you know? Because he feels lucky to have been a part of this amazing world of music, where people are so kind to the young people and just bring them in and jam with them. Just wanting to be a part of that chain of history and the people that share it with you. And it's also part of who he is just in his personality. He's very friendly, open and fun.”

The first album I spoke about with Anger was Fiddlistics, an out-of-print LP on Kaleidoscope Records from 1978, the first of dozens of albums he’s released as a band leader. His family moved to the San Francisco Bay area in 1967 when he was a new teenager, an auspicious time and place to be an excited young music fan. Violin and guitar were his first instruments. The first taught him musical concepts, the latter the freedom to improvise. And when he saw Richard Greene playing electric violin in the band Sea Train with Peter Rowan, it inspired him to devote all his time to the fiddle, playing in bluegrass and jam bands in college at UC Santa Cruz. His ears turned toward what would be later regarded as a historic string band scene developing in the area, including mandolinist David Grisman and fiddler Vassar Clements, especially their band with Jerry Garcia called Old And In The Way. And he made his way to a show.

“I was able to get backstage and talk to David and Vassar,” Anger says in our interview. “I introduced myself, and I think both of them were just so charmed that somebody would get back there and not want to meet Jerry Garcia!” The next thing that lined up was Anger’s friend and bandmate Todd Phillips, a bass player, got into Grisman’s inner circle and invited Darol up to the picking sessions that led to the David Grisman Quintet. “Todd knew I had a band that was playing David’s music, because I brought my cassette machine to (a) show and I learned all the tunes they played - all the melodies, all the harmonies and every solo that (fiddler) Richard Greene played. So, you know, that's my advice to all you youngsters - Be prepared!”

Anger played on two Grisman Quintet albums and honed his voice as a band member during a fertile time in the mid 70s. When Grisman got tied up working on a film about Django Reinhardt, a window of opportunity opened that let Anger make an album of his own, and Fiddlistics was born, with the rest of the extraordinary Grisman band supporting - Phillips plus mandolinist Mike Marshall and guitar phenom Tony Rice. We hear Anger emerge as a composer and they tackle jazz standards as well. It was a bridge to a sensational career.

Mr. Sun

A complete account is impossible, but briefly, Anger launched a long running duo with Mike Marshall that’s produced a remarkable body of work. He recorded albums for the then-hot Windham Hill label with his partner Barbara Higbee. Anger co-founded the groundbreaking Turtle Island String Quartet in the mid 80s, setting the stage for two Grammy Awards. He was part of the supergroup Psychograss, because that might be his core genre. His group Republic of Strings put him in the position of mentorship to Brittany Haas that Grisman had been for him. He was a long-running virtual member of the Yonder Mountain String Band. And all along, he was refining and teaching and spreading the percussive fiddle and bow technique called “the chop” that’s become an essential part of training for every aspiring fiddle player.

The most recent band, the quartet Mr. Sun, includes guitarist Grant Gordy, mandolinist Joe K. Walsh and bass player Aidan O’Donnell. The second album at the heart of this interview is their second project, Extrovert, which came out on Compass Records in May. It’s Anger’s latest iteration of the string jazz concept he’s been pursuing since his Grisman days. Gordy has mesmerizing range, weaving bluegrass and jazz guitar concepts into familiar-feeling but quite novel ideas. They play sweet and lyrical as on the Walsh song “The Fiddler of Dooney,” classic newgrass as on “Murmurations” and adapted jazz standards as on Charles Mingus’s “Better Get It In Your Soul.”

Anger moved to Nashville for the first time in his life last year after sadly losing his wife to cancer. Here he’s near many of the string players he’s taught and collaborated with over the years, and it seems a fitting address. I’ve long looked forward to a chance to inquire about his life and it was an even more illuminating and charming experience than I’d anticipated.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst.