mandolin for mandolin's sake

Pan-American Journeys, Vol. 1 (Windham Hill)
Modern Mandolin Quartet
The Road to Home (dos)
Paul Glasse

By John Goodin

The American mando-revival continues its tent meeting on these two new releases. The Modern Mandolin Quartet and Paul Glasse are both strong exponents of the idea that the mandolin has uses beyond bluegrass music and "sweetening" the tracks recorded by rock stars.

Pan-American Journeys is the boldest effort yet from the MMQ. Here they broaden their repertoire with a collection of pieces written by American composers from Argentina, Brazil, Cuba and the United States. Departing from their practice of playing arrangements of older works, here they premiere three contemporary works apparently composed for or, arranged for, a mandolin quartet. In every respect — composition, performance and sound quality — the recording is a triumph.

Louisville audiences had the chance to hear the Quartet perform Tully Cathey's "Elements IV: Water" with the Louisville Orchestra this past summer. Fans who have heard the Quartet during their Lonesome Pine Special appearances will find the arrangements of three Gershwin piano preludes and two lullabies by Leo Brouwer stylistically very familiar. Those of us who enjoy Mike Marshall's pre-MMQ work will appreciate his first recorded improvised solo with the group during Tom Miller's "Redonda" against a backdrop of percussion and steel pans.

Pan-American Journeys finds the MMQ furthering its goal of bringing classical mandolin to the American mass audience. Listeners who find this blend of mandolin and modern composed music enticing will want to search out a disc titled Contemporaries recorded by the Mair-Davis Duo (mandolin and guitar) a few years ago. One of the best things about Pan-American Journeys, however, is the designation "Vol. 1," which promises us more to come.

The Road to Home is Paul Glasse's second recording and is an unqualified success. Glasse's bluegrass-jazz mix emphasizes the jazz and is a great combination of varied tunes and hot solos. Unlike many players who attempt this sort of fusion, Glasse plays ideas in his solos that say more than "Look ma, I'm playin' jazz!" His harmonic vocabulary is substantial and his rhythmic moves are sophisticated.

I don't mean to imply that The Road to Home is dry and overly serious. "Stanley Steamer" is quick and Glasse's take on Charlie Christian's "Air Mail Special" is delightfully fast. The crack band of Texans who contribute to these tracks handle everything with class. Mitch Watkin's guitar playing is featured with good reason, and ringers Howard Levy and Jerry Douglas add their distinctive voices to several of the cuts.

All but two of the tunes are written by Glasse and show him to be a fine composer. "New Roux," "The Anthem" and the title piece stand out for me. Followers of David Grisman's work and its offshoots will find The Road to Home to be a fine addition to their collection. If you've never heard jazz played on the mandolin, this would be a great place to start.