Mike Marshall’s unified string theory
ASPEN – Mike Marshall marvels at the way that he began his collaboration with the Swedish string trio, Vsen. Marshall and his frequent music partner, fiddler Darol Anger, had been fans of Vsen, had even arranged a number, “Vsen Your Seat Belt,” that strung together several of the trio’s tunes. When he saw that Vsen was scheduled to appear on the same bill with he and Anger, at Indiana’s Lotus World Music & Arts Festival, Marshall’s response was to put in a call to the festival organizers and his own agent, asking for a meet-and-greet.”And they said, ‘Well, you’re booked together to play a show,'” recalled Marshall. “We met at 2 that day, and by 7, the time of the show, we had come up with enough material for a set.”Marshall is pleased that the nearly spontaneous collaboration went smoothly. “That’s not always the case,” said the mandolinist from his home in Oakland, Calif. “Just because you love their music doesn’t mean it’s going to work. You’re not always going to feel the time together, the musical groove. That can take years. Or it can work from the get-go. With them, it was so easy to fall into that pocket and find our part in it.”But his take on the experience doesn’t rise to the level of amazement. Over his three decades in the string world, Marshall has learned that musical styles are all fundamentally connected. Rhythmic accents may differ noticeably from Ireland to Brazil; there may be melodies that evoke thoughts of Vienna or Kentucky. But those are surface traits and on a deeper level, Marshall believes that music, at least Western music, is all interconnected. How else to explain two groups meeting one another in the middle of an afternoon, and five hours later, playing together with a level of mastery?”It’s amazing that we can have so much in common musically, all these common reference points – Irish or bluegrass or African or listening to the Beatles as a kid,” said Marshall. “It’s all part of this big stew of music. It just proves that music is one big thing, that the regional styles are important, but not as important as other things.”Marshall’s own discovery of this notion began in earnest when he joined the David Grisman Quintet, in the late ’70s. At the time, mandolinist Grisman was fusing jazz, bluegrass, South American sounds and more into a style he called “Dawg” music – and which many listeners called the start of a new openness in American string music. Since then, Marshall has delved into a variety of styles: folk-jazz in the group Montreux, classical in the Modern Mandolin Quintet, Brazilian in Choro Famoso. He and Anger have participated in several projects, including a duo and the quintet Psychograss, that put their own spin on post-bluegrass string sounds.”This idea of music being one thing came from traveling all these places, and seeing that all these Western musics are European classical music mixed with African rhythm. Cuban, Appalachian, bluegrass, New Orleans – that’s all it is. It’s all basically coming from a very similar place, with a few different accents,” he said. “There’s dance grooves in all these places, in Ireland or Africa or Sweden, and folk music usually grows out of a dance thing.”Hearing Vsen play its Swedish folk style for the first time put Marshall’s theory to the test. “Darol and I thought it was weird music, because of the accents,” he said. “It’s in 3/4, but it’s not a waltz. It’s a long three.” Only after meeting the members of Vsen – 12-string guitarist Roger Tallroth, violist Mikael Marin, and Olov Johansson, who plays the nyckelharpa, a Swedish instrument with 13 strings plus keys that alter their pitch – did Marshall learn that the rhythms he was hearing as extremely complex were all relatively simple, just slightly skewed.”Brazilian music is very similar,” he said. “You’ve got this basic framework; you just have to physically feel it and feel those grooves. Most people can do that. Then you’re ready to rock.”For the Swedes, the oddity was the very American art of improvisation. “The only part difficult for them is the amount of improvisation Darol and I do,” Marshall said. “That’s not part of their trip. So we opened up the middle of some of their songs and created places to improvise. They’re like, ‘What? We don’t do that.’ But once they started, they were very natural at it.”Marshall and Anger have been rocking, Swede-style, plenty since meeting Vsen four years ago. The five have toured together annually, and in 2007 released a collaborative CD. Last year, the Americans were invited to participate in Vsen’s year-end gala in Uppsala, Sweden. This year they have done three tours together; their latest comes to the Wheeler Opera House tonight for a show that has segments featuring the quintet, Marshall & Anger, and Vsen as a trio.Thanks to the frequent performances with Marshall and Anger, Vsen’s music has become part of the American canon. “Just like people would get together and say, ‘Let’s play an Irish tune,’ they’ll say, ‘Let’s play a Vsen tune.’ They’re becoming that iconic,” Marshall said. And with the Swedish trio appearing at bluegrass festivals (like this summer’s RockyGrass, in Lyons) and Celtic festivals (California’s Sebastopol Celtic Festival), things are getting confusing.”They say, ‘We’re a bluegrass band. We’re also a Celtic band,'” Marshall said.Marshall, meanwhile, continues his musical expansion beyond Scandinavia. He has been playing often with Catarina Lichtenberg, a Bulgarian-born, German-based mandolinist; the two are finishing a CD that includes Bach, Baroque, Brazilian and Marshall originals. He is an ongoing guest this year with the Turtle Island String Quartet, and is creating quartet arrangements of his compositions for the San Francisco jazz combo. He has a new CD out with his latest group, Mike Marshall’s Big Trio, that includes young pickers, violinist Alex Hargreaves and bassist Paul Kowert.”Alex has down all the Texas stuff, all the swing,” said Marshall, who brings the Big Trio to France next month. “And now he’s nailed all this complex harmonic stuff that my generation never really cracked. Bla [Fleck], Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile – we play in a safe harmonic zone. You’re starting to see this next generation go for it. I’m taking classes; I’m asking questions.”Marshall understands he isn’t the first one to look beyond his borders and age group to see what else was happening musically.”Bach wanted to know what was going in Italy and England – even if he never traveled 50 miles from his home,” he said. “You listen to his music and that’s hard to believe.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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