Casey Driessen: Beyond the fiddle
Fiddler Casey Driessen has been an instructor at six music camps this summer, many of which have some form of the word “bluegrass” in their name. The lessons to his students, most of them intermediates, has focused on bluegrass – “repertoire and vocabulary and language,” said Driessen. But between runs through “Orange Blossom Special” and “Soldier’s Joy,” Driessen sprinkles in some bigger-picture thinking about the instrument, opening students’ eyes to the idea that the fiddle is capable of more than just fiddle tunes.”The idea that it’s OK to explore music and approach it with a little fearlessness, that it’s trial-and-error,” said Driessen, who was between classes at the Targhee Bluegrass Camp in Wyoming, the last stop on the teaching tour that has included stops at Colorado’s RockyGrass Academy, the Bluegrass Week at West Virginia’s Augusta Heritage Center, and the Sore Fingers Summer School in Oxfordshire, U.K.One need not attend a fiddle camp to see that Driessen is fearless in his explorations of the instrument. On the recent “Oog,” the 30-year-old’s second album under his name, Driessen takes the fiddle well beyond its comfort zone of being the elegant, melodic instrument in bluegrass, Celtic and classical styles. Driessen gets plenty of bang out of his bow, using it as a percussive tool, coaxing rock ‘n’ roll and even hip-hop sounds from it, playing avant-garde chamber music, and generally taking the fiddle everywhere except places it has already been. There is a take on Bill Monroe’s “Ashland Breakdown,” but it uses cutting-edge techniques to take it far from the traditional realm.The title for “Oog” was inspired by the artist M.C. Escher; “oog” is Dutch for “eye,” Escher’s art is known for playing tricks on the eye, and Driessen shares a Dutch heritage with Escher. “Oog” is also the middle section of “boogie” – a fact that Driessen noticed only in retrospect, but does enjoy.”I’m exploring fiddle music,” Driessen said. “With the traditional tunes, I screw around with them. Not out of disrespect. I’m inspired by them to try out new ideas. I’m inspired to give it a different life. And my original music, that’s inspired by life experience. Like meeting a musician – like [jazz guitarist] Frank Vignola – playing with him, and having something come out of that.”•••• Growing up in Minnesota, Driessen was exposed to the idea that the fiddle was a multi-faceted instrument. As a 5-year-old, he studied the Suzuki method of classical violin; when that phase ended after two years, he came under the wing of his father, who played banjo and pedal steel. The elder Driessen had a grounding in bluegrass but was open-minded about music, and turned Casey on to jazz, Western swing and more. In fourth grade he started playing with the jazz orchestra at his public school; soon after, he joined the jazz band, reading guitar charts and playing them on mandolin. For a bluegrass education, there were the parking-lot jam sessions at the bluegrass festivals he attended. And for the idea that bluegrass could be taken beyond the style of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, he heard “Quintet ’80,” an album by mandolinist David Grisman that was a revelatory listening experience.Through all this education, Driessen found there were some explorations that were lost on him. When his father gave him several albums by Jean-Luc Ponty, the French musician who played jazz-fusion on an electric violin, he was lost. “It was too far out for me,” he said. “It didn’t make sense to me.”Despite this purposeful immersion in various methods of fiddling, it was an incident of happenstance that brought Driessen to his big stylistic breakthrough. At 11, he began playing in the Chicago band, Minor Bluegrass. The group had no mandolin player, leaving a void in the rhythmic, percussive zone of the music. Driessen filled it with his fiddle.”I took the role of playing the mandolin, that percussive backbeat,” he said. “Over time with that group, I developed my percussive fiddle technique, the bouncing of the bow on the strings, more transient than melodic noises. I thought, I’m onto something new here; this is exciting.”It wasn’t quite as original as he had imagined. Someone heard his style and told him to check out the Turtle Island String Quartet. Driessen discovered that the group’s violinist, Darol Anger, was indeed playing a similar style rooted in rhythm. Rather than be discouraged, he became a student of Anger’s.By the time he graduated high school, Driessen had moved away from bluegrass and become a jazz devotee, soaking up Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Stphane Grappelli. One result of this transition was an eventual appreciation of Jean-Luc Ponty. “I put them back on and I was ready for it. That stuff was part of my vocabulary by then,” he said.A second result was enrolling at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. But instead of falling in with the hardcore jazz players, he found himself playing with musicians who were geographically closest to him, who happened to be into Motown and R&B. Among them was Matt Mangano, an electric bassist who is part of Driessen’s touring trio.”That was more input,” Driessen said of his alliance with Berklee’s R&B contingent. “I took that and turned those rhythms into the percussive grooves I had been working on. I’ve always been one to try to fit inside something and try to participate in it. It’s always, ‘How do I add to this music?'”Since graduating nine years ago, Driessen has added his signature fiddling to the music of Steve Earle, Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott and Bla Fleck. This past winter, Driessen played at the Wheeler Opera House as part of fiddler-singer Abigail Washburn’s Sparrow Quartet, a dynamic group that included Fleck on banjo, and crossed Chinese styles with Appalachian music, gospel and blues.Driessen returns to the valley this week, playing Wednesday, Aug. 26 at Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale. The trio features a rhythm section of Mangano on electric bass, drummer Tom Giampietro, and Driessen on a plugged-in fiddle. (Driessen has flip-flopped between plugging in and not; he prefers plugging in not so much for the volume but the physical mobility it affords.)Driessen says he thinks of the trio, which has four years together under its belt, as a jazz combo, with the emphasis on interaction and listening.”It’s like a jazz trio. But the material is coming out of the fiddle tradition, and out of Hank Williams,” he said. “As crazy as it sounds, it makes sense to me.”email@example.com
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