Chris Pandolfi plays banjo in The Infamous Stringdusters
I knew very little about acoustic music when I fell in love with the banjo. I suppose my introduction to the instrument was somewhat backwards. For those first few mysterious months of playing‚ I focused only on the major contemporary styles‚ which was all I really knew. Then I heard Old and in the Way‚ David Grisman's legendary bluegrass collaboration with Jerry Garcia‚ Vassar Clements‚ Peter Rowan and John Kahn. The short-lived band sounded pretty straight to my untrained ear‚ but their energy and spontaneity were captivating. It was a big find: bluegrass and Grisman at the same time.
About a month later‚ one of my music professors gave me a dubbed cassette copy of the original Grisman Quintet record. I had never heard anything like it. While Old and in the Way was a traditional outlet for an eclectic group of players who shared a mutual appreciation of bluegrass‚ the Quintet was‚ and still is‚ something totally original. It became the basis of Grisman's amazing and prolific career.
It's interesting to think about how our impressions of music change as we progress as players (or listeners). When I got heavy into music I listened to everything from Zappa to Miles Davis to the Flecktones. I was enthralled when I heard something new‚ something original. I didn't know it at the time but there was common thread through most of what I was into: innovation.
Since then‚ I have spent many hours trying to understand these and other types of music with an instrument in my hands‚ and I suppose it has become a little more difficult to enjoy music in the abstract. We all grow more critical with age. But‚ the appeal with Grisman's music is eternal. I still hear all the things that initially drew me into that first record (still my favorite). The tunes‚ the lineup and the sound of the recording are unique and stellar. I am especially blown away by the ensemble playing. It's a fusion of acoustic music's most original voices‚ weaving a tapestry of collective improvisation. They find the balance between a pulsing rhythmic feel and a beautiful/artful aesthetic. And‚ at the center of it all is Grisman's mandolin.
I first heard the Quintet live a few months after I got the first record‚ which had already been out for well over 20 years. It was different but equally amazing. The improvisational spirit of the band has endured‚ combined with an unending stream of amazing Grisman tunes‚ some of which have already become standards.
I became friends with Dawg's son Sam before I finally met the man himself. Sam is a great kid and a great bass player. His legacy is in the works, but very promising. He brought his dad out to a Stringdusters show last fall at the Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley‚ and David was kind of enough to join us onstage for a handful of tunes. It was amazing. It seemed as if the sound of his mandolin rose above everything‚ lifting the music with amazing authority and minimal effort. My uncle came to the show and afterward he asked me‚ "Is his instrument really twice as loud as everyone else's?" I tried to explain that it was much more than volume‚ but words didn't capture his musical presence.
We still list that night as one of our band's most memorable‚ and Grisman will always remain one of our biggest influences. I think creating a sound that is innovative but also organic and musical is the greatest challenge of all. And‚ like most of the real titans‚ David Grisman has made that his legacy. I suppose you are always compared to musicians of that stature until you truly do something that is your own. But that is one comparison that none of us should be too afraid of.