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Chris Thile, Punch Brothers will play Aspen’s Wheeler

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Cassandra JenkinsThe Punch Brothers, led by mandolinist Chris Thile, far left, perform Saturday,
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ASPEN – Leave Chris Thile on his own, isolate him in a room with no outside contact, and here’s what he’ll come up with: a mandolin concerto. Thile’s Mandolin Concerto – titled “Ad astra per alas porci,” or “To the stars upon a pig” – appears to be a magnificent thing. It has earned positive reviews from Alabama to Denver, where it had its premiere this past September, performed by Thile, conductor Jeffrey Kahane and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Most of the comments make a point of mentioning that Thile, who came up through the bluegrass world and is best known as a member of the defunct acoustic trio Nickel Creek, is working in a genuinely classical-music language in his concerto. Another round of performances is being scheduled.

But after focusing on orchestral music, and playing the concerto in concert halls, Thile is ready to get out of his head. The concerto “is something that’s a little bit like me thinking into things, rather than being one-fifth of a group that is feeling it through,” said Thile, who studied composition for two semesters at Murray State University, in Kentucky, where his father is an instrument technician.

The antidote for all that heavy thinking has been to surround himself with some musical company. Since touring the concerto, Thile has regrouped with Punch Brothers, the string quintet he assembled several years ago. The band is most of the way through making its second album, as yet untitled, and tentatively scheduled for release this spring. The music, created in collaborative fashion, is song-oriented, and aims for “a more physical reaction, natural and visceral,” Thile said from his home in Brooklyn. “It will have a more physical effect on people. We’re really looking for that.”

Punch Brothers was formed in the wake of Thile’s 2004 divorce, and the first player he had in mind was Gabe Witcher, a fiddler with whom he had talked often about forming a band. When Thile met banjoist Noam Pikelny, at the 2006 Telluride Bluegrass Festival, he knew he had the majority of the pieces in place for a quintet that utilized the standard bluegrass-band instrumentation: mandolin, fiddle, banjo, guitar and bass. Thile called on two more young, forward-minded pickers – guitarist Chris Eldridge, a founding member of the Nashville bluegrass group the Infamous Stringdusters; and Greg Garrison, bassist of the Colorado jam-grass band Leftover Salmon – and gathered them for a night that seemed designed to erase bad memories and plan a better future.

“We got together one night just to drop a ton of money, drink too much wine, eat steaks, and commiserate about our failed relationships,” Thile told the Nashville City Paper in 2006. “We had gotten to play together a few days before and we had said that we needed to do something musical together. With our hearts smashed to pieces, it became more urgent – our lives had gone the same way for so long.”

The immediate result was “How to Grow a Woman From the Ground,” an album released under Thile’s name that featured Thile’s typical genre-bending originals and adventurous takes on songs by the White Stripes, the Strokes and Gillian Welch. The recording was successful enough – it earned a Grammy nomination for Best Country Instrumental Performance – that the fivesome decided to make it an ongoing project. They took the name How to Grow a Band and switched to the Tension Mountain Boys before settling on Punch Brothers, taken from the Mark Twain short story, “Punch, Brothers, Punch.”

In February 2008, the group released “Punch.” The bulk of the album was occupied by “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” Thile’s 40-minute, four-part suite which was his artistic way of addressing his divorce. The piece was Thile’s biggest leap at that point into classical terrain, and it served notice that the mandolinist had some real ambition to be a composer, and the chops to make the jump.

With “The Blind Leaving the Blind” – which had its premiere at Carnegie Hall – and the Mandolin Concerto behind him, Thile was looking for a more visceral sort of musical expression. He got it simply by reaching out to his band members (including Paul Kowert, who has replaced Garrison in the bass slot).

“It’s far more collaborative in nature,” Thile said of the music on the upcoming Punch Brothers album, “and that, for whatever reason, made it more song-oriented. Shorter forms. When the five of us write together, it’s a little more interested in expressing ourselves in song form.

“We’re trying to elicit a more physical reaction, rather than internal. ‘Punch,’ with ‘The Blind Leaving the Blind’ – for a lot of people who weren’t used to our late-Western, late-Romantic personality, it was a fairly cerebral affair for them. I think this band is taking a more visceral angle, without losing cerebral integrity.”

Thile and his mates are about to see if those tunes have the intended effect on a live audience. Punch Brothers were about to set off on a tour, the third date of which is at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House, on Saturday, Jan. 16. Asked if they would be performing the new material, Thile gave an enthusiastic yes.

While the new album features no long-form pieces, Thile said he is trying to be as experimental as ever. The songs, he said, “are very elaborate short forms. Very elaborate, very ornate.”

Thile has had plenty of experience in being uncommonly complex while working on a small scale. In Nickel Creek, the San Diego band he formed with siblings Sean and Sara Watkins when all were still adolescents, the challenge seemed to be, How expansive can we be while playing only acoustic instruments? The trio covered “Spit on a Stranger” by the rock band Pavement, as well as plenty of Radiohead material. Their 2002 album “This Side,” which earned a Grammy for best contemporary folk album, borrowed equally from chamber music and Beatles-esque recording techniques.

Outside of Nickel Creek, which broke up in 2007, Thile recorded a pair of albums with fellow mandolinist Mike Marshall, and made the solo albums “Not All Who Wander Are Lost,” a continuation of his string-music explorations, and “Deceiver,” which seemed to prove that pop music was not his forte. In 2008, Thile collaborated with bassist Edgar Meyer, his principle mentor on the composition side, for “Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile,” an album of instrumental duets. The two performed at the 2008 Aspen Music Festival, an opportunity for Thile to demonstrate that he ranks with the finest instrumentalists on the planet, regardless of style. Thile said he and Meyer, who is a revered member of the Aspen Music School faculty, are scheduled to work together again later this year, though Thile did not know what sort of music would come out of it.

Meanwhile, Thile continues his search for other inspirations, other collaborations. Looking for a collaborator who, like Meyer, spanned several genres, but was closer in age to the 28-year-old Thile, he found Gabriel Kahane. Kahane – the son of Jeffrey Kahane, who conducted the premiere of Thile’s Mandolin Concerto – is a Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter who mixes jazz, classical and pop influences, and has worked in concert halls, clubs and in theater. His best-known work is “Craigslistlieder,” which set ads from Craigslist to music.

“He’s got his hands in everything right now, which is how I like to go about things,” Thile said of Kahane. “I’m working through problems of being in between folk, pop and classical, finding where all the best parts are, the very, very best of what all these musics have to offer. Pop is so direct. Folk is so grounded in humanity.

“There’s a lot to be said for just being curious, for having a voracious appetite for music and wondering how it all works.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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