David Grisman brings bluegrass to Aspen
ASPEN – In 1973, mandolinist David Grisman helped put bluegrass in the ears of an unusually large audience, when he and Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia launched Old & In the Way. The band’s self-titled first album was said to be the best-selling bluegrass recording at the time, and turned legions of Deadheads onto acoustic string music.But Grisman made perhaps an even greater contribution to music two years later, when he founded his David Grisman Quintet. The group mixed jazz, Brazilian and Gypsy styles with bluegrass, and helped bust open the door for experimentation in the acoustic realm.Grisman brings his bluegrass group, the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience, to Belly Up Aspen on Sunday, July 11. The band will be absent its regular bassist, David’s son Sam – but those who insist on seeing the younger Grisman can catch him picking as a member of Bearfoot, who play the same night at Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale.The father answered some questions posed by The Aspen Times via e-mail.Q: You’re best known for your David Grisman Quintet, which plays a mix of jazz, Gypsy, South American and bluegrass styles. What’s behind the desire to play straight-up bluegrass in the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience?DG: I’ve loved and played bluegrass intermittently now for over 45 years. Once bluegrass gets in your blood it never leaves. I have no reason to cease playing traditional bluegrass just because I do other things musically. I actually formed the DGBX in 1987 to tour behind a double album I made back then, “Home is Where the Heart Is.” The first version included my longtime bluegrass friend, Del McCoury, and his two sons, Ronnie and Rob. The band now includes some of the best California bluegrass musicians I know – Jim Nunally on guitar and vocals, Keith Little on banjo and vocals, Chad Manning on fiddle, and my son, Sam on bass. It’s certainly one of the best bluegrass ensembles I’ve ever played with.Q: Is bluegrass in any way less sophisticated than jazz?DG: It depends on one’s definition of sophistication. But I think not. Perhaps the chords are simpler, but the vocal harmonies are very subtle and to me, the dynamics are as sophisticated as any music gets.Q: When you’re playing in the DGBX, do you find your fingers sometimes wanting to play jazz chords and Brazilian rhythms? Or is it easy to separate the two?DG: Not only my fingers, but my brain. I’ll sometimes throw something different in, but in general, I like to play by the bluegrass rules.Q: I understand the bassist for the DGBX recently took another job. Tell us about Samson Grisman.DG: I’m very proud of my youngest son, Sam. He is a wonderful bass player and musician. He’s currently juggling playing in four professional bands: the DGBX (he’s been in this band since he was eight or nine), Bearfoot, The Deadly Gentlemen, and Darol Anger’s Republic of Strings. He had made a prior commitment to The Deadly Gentlemen before these Colorado dates were booked, so I had to hire a sub for him.Q: I listened to a recording of a duet between you and banjoist Bla Fleck, where he referred to you as the person “pointing the way to future generations of psychotic bluegrass-jazz musicians, pathfinder for the new American music.” Impressive. Who were you listening to early on who pointed the way for you?DG: As I’ve said many times, everything traditional starts out as heresy. When Bill Monroe hired Earl Scruggs in 1946, his band revolutionized traditional country string band music – same with Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli and their Quintet of the Hot Club of France. These and many other musicians inspired me early on and still are a force to be reckoned with.Q: Your new business venture, Acoustic Oasis, makes available digital downloads by old jazz players, Italian mandolinists, various combos featuring yourself, and a Danish jazz violinist named Svend Asmussen. You seem nearly as much a fan of string music as you are a player.DG: I’m a fan of good music of all kinds, particularly styles rooted in acoustic instruments and traditions. With a new release every few weeks, Acoustic Oasis will have as broad a base as possible, encompassing bluegrass, jazz, Latin, gypsy jazz styles, both contemporary and historic.Q: Who has been your latest discovery – old or new – in the acoustic music realm?DG: Several amazing mandolin players from Brazil that I’ve encountered in the past several years have really impressed me: Danilo Britos, Dudu Maia and Hamilton de Holanda. There are two fiddle players that have been playing recently with my Quintet (called the Quintet plus): Alex Hargreaves from Oregon, and Mike Barnett – both incredible. Also Grant Gordy, the quintet’s young guitarist (from Denver), is phenomenal.Q: You once played in a band, Old & In the Way, that featured a guy who was known as a pretty good rock ‘n’ roll guitarist. How was Jerry Garcia as a banjo player?DG: Jerry was an excellent player with his own brand of bluegrass banjo picking, influenced by all the greats from Earl Scruggs to Eddie Adcock and Allen Shelton. His approach was very rhythmic and had a lot of spunk and personality, just like his guitar style(s).Q: Speaking of Garcia, your own label, Acoustic Disc, just released an expanded version of “The Pizza Tapes,” a 1993 jam session between you, Garcia and guitarist Tony Rice. Three CDs? That must have been some jam.DG: Actually the 170-minute “Extra Large Pizza Tapes” is available exclusively at Acoustic Oasis. It was a “once-in-three lifetimes” event that was bootlegged for several years and became so popular that we decided to release one CD’s worth on Acoustic Disc 10 years ago. Folks loved it because it was a true studio jam, complete with all the repartee that goes along with such a unique meeting of musical minds, and it was fun.Q: Your nickname is Dawg, bestowed on you by Garcia, and it’s a theme you’ve stuck with in your career. Have you got a dog? Do dogs prefer straightahead bluegrass or dawg music?DG: Presently we have no resident dog. But we do a lot of dog-sitting for our family. They like the good stuff! Hopefully, that includes both bluegrass and dawg firstname.lastname@example.org
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