In the early years of the 20th century the mandolin ruled the instrumental roost in America. Easily transportable, quickly learnable, tuned like a violin, and ideally suited for a vast array of old-world styles, the mighty eight-string mando was even featured playing light classics in huge "plectrum" orchestras. But by the rise of the Jazz Age, the mandolin had been supplanted by the guitar, ukulele, and banjo, and it languished out of the limelight for decades, consigned mostly to bluegrass and various folk styles. These days however, the mandolin is once again on the rise, as a new generation discovers the fretted and unfettered pleasures of the diminutive instrument with the bright, metallic twang.
"We're in the middle of a mandolin renaissance," says Oakland string wizard Mike Marshall, who first gained fame in the late 1970s as an original member of the David Grisman Quintet. "At the beginning of every century the mandolin becomes the instrument of the day, and its time has come again."
Proof of Marshall's mando messianism can be found tonight at the Freight & Salvage, where five dazzling plectrum prophets hold forth as part of the International Mandolin Night. Representing the instrument's European legacy is Bulgarian-born, East German-raised Caterina Lichtenberg, "one of the greatest classical mandolinists living today," Marshall says. "She's playing traditional classical mandolin but also a baroque mandolin with gut strings that she plays with a feather, which is very trippy for American mandolinists."
While the evening is designed to showcase the instrument's range and flexibility, it's just as much a case study in the enduring seductiveness of Brazilian music. The twenty-year-old mando phenom Eva Scow performs as part of a duo with guitarist Dusty Brough. She started playing the instrument at eight, originally focusing on bluegrass and old-time styles. A trip to Rio de Janeiro at fifteen left her smitten with choro, the intricate Brazilian instrumental style often compared to bluegrass. She's already such an accomplished player and composer that Marshall is getting ready to release her debut album on Adventure Music, a label that focuses on Brazilian music.
"She's this miraculous mandolin player from Fresno, and it's unbelievable how beautiful she plays," Marshall says. "She got taken down to Brazil and fell into the heart of that music. After that, she dug deep into the whole choro thing, and now she's writing her own tunes."
In Portuguese, the mandolin is known as the bandolim, and two of Brazil's most prodigious players will be on hand at the Freight. Danilo Brito gained fame as a nineteen-year-old phenomenon in 2004 when he won the 7th Annual Prêmio Visa de Música Brasileira award for best instrumentalist (on any instrument). Dudu Maia is a protégé of bandolim virtuoso Hamilton de Holanda, who made his Bay Area debut at the Freight with Marshall in 2005.
"Danilo is really the heir to Jacob do Bandolim," says Marshall, referring to the choro genius who revived the style in the 1940s. "He plays choro really tipping his hat to the old guard, very deep harmonically and rhythmically. Dudu knows choro, but he's really into the styles of the northeast, forró and baião, and his whole thing is about groove."
The Brazilian theme continues with Marshall, who performs with his band Choro Famoso. The quartet features reed master Andy Connell on clarinet and soprano sax, seven-string guitarist Colin Walker, and percussionist Brian Rice, who specializes in the tambourine-like pandeiro, an essential component of any choro band.
It's no coincidence that so much mando mojo happens to be in the Bay Area at the same time. All the players just finished teaching at the weeklong Mandolin Symposium in Santa Cruz. Launched in 2004 by tireless bluegrass activist Stephen Ruffo and the multigenerational mandolin triumvirate of Marshall, Grisman, and Nickel Creek's Chris Thile, the symposium is a six-day event that includes seminars, demonstrations, and performances by the illustrious faculty.
Many of the symposium attendants are longtime fans of Marshall, Andy Statman, and Grisman, who is best known for his pioneering, stylistically encompassing "dawg music" quintet and collaborations with legendary jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli and the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia. But the symposium also attracts a generous helping of blazing young teenage players whom Marshall describes as "the future of the instrument."
"It's hard to imagine that it can go further than Chris Thile, but sure enough it does," Marshall says. "Youth is the answer, with that incredible dexterity, and a mind that's an open sponge without a mortgage and private school tuition to worry about."
He notes that the symposium puts a strong emphasis on making the musicians aware of the tremendous array of mandolin music that already exists. Each morning begins with a music appreciation class exploring the roots of contemporary styles. And in many ways, Grisman is a living link to the mandolin's first wave of innovation.
Coming of age in the early 1960s on the fringes of the Greenwich Village folk scene, Grisman recalls meeting elderly players in music stores who learned the mandolin when it was still the country's most popular fretted string instrument. Sparked by the Gibson Company, which avidly marketed its line of archback instruments created in the image of the violin family (with mandolas, mandocellos, and even mandobasses), mandolin orchestras sprang up in cities around the country.
"This was before radio and TV, and even recordings were not very prevalent," Grisman says. "So for home entertainment people made their own music. In the 1920s and '30s it really faded, but there were players who hung in there through the mandolin depression. Then in the 1940s, Bill Monroe really revolutionized country string-band music with the creation of bluegrass, which kept growing in popularity through the '50s and '60s."
More than anyone, it was Grisman who created a space for the mandolin as a lead voice through the success of his quintet, a pure instrumental ensemble with none of bluegrass' vocals. "Since then there's been proliferation of younger players," Grisman says, "who have taken that idea and run with it."
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