Mountains of Mandolin Matt Flinner brings new quartet to Sundeck show
The billing for the music on top of Aspen Mountain this Sunday reads, “Bluegrass Sundays, Matt Flinner.” Which at best, doesn’t tell you much, and at worse is flat-out wrong. In fairness, though, describing Matt Flinner as a musician in four words is near to impossible.In fact, Flinner won’t be playing bluegrass at all come Sunday. Flinner will be appearing with his Matt Flinner Quartet, a combo featuring electric guitar, electric bass and drums that is influenced more than anything by the funk-jazz fusion of Béla Fleck & the Flecktones. The quartet – comprising Coloradan Ross Martin on guitar, Sam Bevan on bass guitar and Bob Smith on drums, with Flinner playing mandolin – is getting the lion’s share of Flinner’s attention these days. But hardly all of it.Flinner, a Salt Lake City native who has lived in Nashville for the past five years, performed at the Wheeler Opera House’s Beyond Bluegrass Festival of Acoustic Music last spring as part of Phillips, Grier & Flinner. That acoustic trio, with bassist Todd Phillips and guitarist David Grier, has been an ongoing unit for some six years.Much of Flinner’s summer was spent touring as a fill-in member of Leftover Salmon, the Colorado band that fuses bluegrass, rock, zydeco and more. The Leftover Salmon gig found Flinner not on mandolin, the instrument with which he is most closely associated, but on banjo, his first instrument. Of late, Flinner has also been playing banjo in a new bluegrass-leaning band led by Leftover Salmon’s Drew Emmitt.For a twist, Flinner also claims membership in the Modern Mandolin Quartet, a San Francisco group that features mandolin-type instruments – including mandocello and mandola – and plays a classical repertoire. And after thinking a moment, Flinner recalls that he does occasional work with Nashville bassist Missy Raines.Flinner acknowledges that the current state of multiple affairs, which has split his loyalties more than at any time in his career, has stretched him a bit thin. On the other hand, at 35, Flinner is developing at a quicker rate than ever.”I like having my interests spread around,” he said from Salt Lake City, where he was about to begin his latest quartet tour. “I learn the most when I’m playing in a lot of groups, with a lot of people.”
The opportunity to learn is what is attracted him most to his quartet. The Matt Flinner Quartet debuted last year with the release of “Walking on the Moon,” a fusionesque instrumental album that featured a handful of Flinner originals plus a cover of the Police’s “Walking on the Moon” and a medley of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” and the Meters’ “Cissy Strut.” The album featured an earlier lineup of the quartet, with Gawain Matthews on electric guitar and drummer Aaron Johnston. The current quartet came into place nearly a year ago, and has been stimulating Flinner’s creativity since.”The quartet allows me to go in a direction I really want to go,” he said. “These musicians really inspire me, and we inspire each other. It still feels pretty young. If I had one group that’s my favorite, that would be the one. This one is really letting me learn hard, and steep. This is the one that has me writing the most stuff.”Everything has its own set of challenges. The Modern Mandolin Quartet is a whole different kind of music. That exposes me to music I wouldn’t have heard otherwise. With the trio, I learn how to play bluegrass, how to improvise on the spot. And there’s more responsibility there, because it’s only three of us.”The audience at the Wheeler last March, which witnessed a stellar performance by Phillips, Grier & Flinner, might have trouble being persuaded that the quartet represents the best use of Flinner’s time and abilities. The trio came together six years ago, when Flinner used Phillips and Grier as the core group for his first solo album, “The View From Here,” produced by Phillips. Flinner says that, even with six years of fairly steady playing, the trio is only starting to come into its own.”It’s something we’ve been doing for a while, and I guess we’ve figured out what we’re supposed to sound like,” said Flinner, who had played with guitarist Grier in various combos, most prominently one led by Tony Furtado. “It manages to keep developing.”Flinner is keeping room open in his schedule for Drew Emmitt’s band, which sometimes is billed as Freedom Ride. The newly formed quartet, including Martin on guitar and Leftover Salmon bassist Greg Garrison, is scheduled to tour heavily through the fall.
F F F FThe first band to have Matt Flinner’s name attached to it was something of a joke. Flinner had been taught to play banjo by his older brother, Rex, and when their band played on the streets of Salt Lake City, Rex thought it a good idea to name the band after the youngest member.”I was the kid in the group,” said Flinner. “It was sort of a gimmick; when we played on the street and people would point at me and say, ‘Look at that kid.'”Before that, Flinner had played in the Pee-Wee Pickers, a group of nothing but kids, managed by fiddler Ted Shupe. (In addition to Flinner, the Pickers included Ryan Shupe, who now heads Ryan Shupe & the Rubber Band.)Flinner’s first experience as a touring musician came over a decade ago, when he spent a month playing banjo with the brother-sister act, Tim & Mollie O’Brien. But when he joined his next group, the bluegrass-rock act Sugarbeat, Flinner got bumped to the mandolin seat.”It gradually drifted that way,” he said. “Sugarbeat already had Tony Furtado, a great banjo player. So I took up mandolin full-time.”
The switch of instruments has also helped Flinner overcome the hurdle of escaping the long shadow of Béla Fleck. “On banjo, I really felt I was trying to imitate Béla. I fell into that trap,” said Flinner. “With mandolin, I have more of my own voice. I find it easier to write in my own voice on mandolin.”Nashville, the center of the acoustic music world, may be the most convenient residence for a musician with fingers in so many pies. But Flinner’s heart remains in the Rocky Mountains. After leaving Utah, he settled in the Jackson, Wyo., area for five years. But if there is a place that seems to fit his musical vision best, it is Colorado.”In Colorado, bluegrass has a unique audience,” he said. “Because of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and bands like Leftover Salmon and String Cheese Incident, people have been exposed to bluegrass in a different way. It’s not just the high, lonesome sound. People get a bigger idea of what bluegrass can be. They get exposed to the Del McCoury band at the same time as they get exposed to Leftover Salmon.”This gig is called Bluegrass Sundays. But we’re not a bluegrass band. That says a lot.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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