From bluegrass to 'dawg music' with the mandolin

September 19, 1996|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Even though he has changed the way many people think about mandolin music, David Grisman never set out to be a revolutionary on his instrument. In fact, it never even occurred to him that the kind of jazzy, virtuosic soloing he liked to do -- a style he dubbed "dawg music" -- wasn't normally done on mandolin.

But then, why should it have? As he puts it: "It's mostly the musicians. The instrument is incidental. People ask me, 'Why did you add a flute to your group?' Well, I added a musician, who happens to play flute.

"So it's the musicians ultimately that create the interest in the instruments, or music, or style and all of that. I always heard the mandolin as a voice, and immediately could see that anything I could play could be played on mandolin."

Mandolin wasn't Grisman's first instrument. "I didn't have a background as a mandolin player," he explains, over the phone from his San Francisco studio. "I had taken piano lessons when I was between the ages of 7 and 10 and got inspired to take up the mandolin when I was about 15 years old, after meeting a guy named Ralph Rinzler, who is now passed away but was one of this country's great folklorists. And also a really fine mandolin player.

"He happened to be a neighbor of mine in Passaic, N.J., so I got turned on to bluegrass music and traditional folk music in a big way by him. I was passionately in love with that music, so that was what I was trying to learn, was bluegrass."

Eventually, though, Grisman moved beyond straight bluegrass style to develop "dawg music," a sound documented on the boxed set "DGQ20." When the David Grisman Quintet began recording, back in 1976, its adventurous use of harmony and fondness for wide-ranging improvisation seemed quite radical. In retrospect, though, it was the cornerstone of the entire "new acoustic" movement.

"It's like anything else," he says. "Most new ideas seem radical at first. I mean, bluegrass was radical when it first came out. When Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs first created that sound, that was very radical. I guess it's just the fact that a lot of the guys who went through my band have gone out and done similar things."

Still, it's doubtful those others would have come up with that sound on their own. "I didn't invent anything," says Grisman, modestly. "I might have been the first guy on the block to show up with a band to play it.

"When I evolved my musical concept to the point of seeing it as a band or playing it in groups, there was this crop of musicians just ready to play it, like Tony Rice and Darol Anger in my first band. When I met Tony Rice and played him this music, it was like he was waiting all his life to hear this, and immediately grokked it and wanted to play it."

Other musicians had similar reactions to Grisman's playing, including a bearded, Bay Area guitarist by the name of Jerry Garcia.

"We had very similar tastes and concepts; in fact, for many years, we were on parallel courses," says Grisman, who recorded with Garcia several times. "I think the only difference was -- and it's a big difference -- he went into rock and roll and electric music.

"But we both had the same interest in bluegrass, and we both listened to a lot of the same roots music when we were learning. And kept listening to things, further along the way, such as Django Rheinhardt and Miles Davis.

"In fact, on this 'DGQ20' there's one track with Jerry playing one of my tunes that I had just written, which was kind of what I'd call a neo-dawg tune, and he just fit right into it. He could have been my guitar player.

"In fact, I offered him the job many times," he adds, laughing.

Pub Date: 9/19/96

David Grisman Quintet

When: Tonight at 8 p.m.

Where: Gordon Center for Performing Arts

Tickets: $25

Call: (410) 356-7469

Sundial: To hear excerpts from David Grisman's new release, "DGQ20," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the code 6165. For other local Sundial numbers, see the directory on Page 2A.

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