Guitar Man

Broadneck High Grad Is Thriving In The World Of Bluegrass Music

December 27, 2009|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

It's cozy in a small room in the rear of the coffee bar. The first flakes of a gathering snowstorm are swirling outside, and on a dimly lit stage, guitar player Jordan Tice bends over his instrument, eyes narrowed, feeling his way through a few simple, mournful chords.

They're the opening sounds of "Ode to a Vending Machine," one of the dozens of original tunes that have given Tice, a 22-year-old Arnold native, the reputation of "an amazingly gifted guitarist and composer," in the words of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine, one of the holier scriptures in the world of acoustic music.

The mandolin, banjo and bass players behind him fall into a gentle rhythm. Rangy in a blue Oxford shirt, he guides the melody through a thicket of major-seventh chords, effecting a glide from old-time folk straight into jazz. The crowd erupts in applause.

"Prettiest vending machine song I've ever heard," quips banjo-playing veteran Mike Munford. "Makes me want to go buy a Coke."

If you think it can't be easy being a prodigy, you probably haven't met Tice, a soft-spoken graduate of Broadneck High who made his first solo album at 16, plays with some of the hottest young pickers in his business, and has the chops and ambition to leave industry old-timers predicting a long career.

"Jordan is at the top of the young talent," says Tom Mindte, owner of Patuxent Music, an independent record label specializing in American roots music. "He's amenable to any style and always comes up with something tasteful. And he's such a nice guy that people just like him."

Home from his adopted hometown of Boston, Tice is headlining the first of two shows that night at 49 West in Annapolis. He has known the old hands onstage since he was in middle school. Many in the crowd are the people who bolstered his early career.

As the snow begins to deepen in the streets outside, Tice's playing weaves Scottish reels, bluegrass breakdowns and jazz jamming into a comfortable whole. Inside 49 West, it's positively toasty.

Full circle

In a scratchy falsetto that might do Ralph Stanley proud, he belts out a tear-jerker from the Depression era, "I've Endured," working solos on his guitar between verses.

Tice is just getting warmed up. But with his dimpled face, shy smile and effortless fingerwork on the fretboard, you wonder just what it is he has had to overcome.

Born the second son of Bob and Sue Tice, veteran performers on the Annapolis-area bluegrass scene, he grew up hearing live rehearsals in the kitchen and jam sessions in the living room, getting to know the area's most recognizable players as though they were aunts and uncles.

Like a lot of kids, he didn't always appreciate the fare his parents served. "Until I was about 13 or 14, it was like, 'Oh, Mom and Dad are having friends over; the house is going to be noisy tonight,' " Tice says. "Music was something that was just there."

He caught the bug as an early teen, though, showing right away that his tastes were his own. He listened ad nauseam to blues-rock legends the Allman Brothers, entranced by their dual, harmonizing lead guitars. He bought a Fender electric knockoff at a pawnshop. And as he embarked on lessons, Tice sought out instructors who could teach him the rudiments of jazz and classical playing.

"He didn't really play like anybody else," says Mindte, who first came across Tice performing at a Baltimore County restaurant. "A lot of young guitar players just copy [popular stars of the genre like] Tony Rice or David Grier. He had listened to it all and amalgamated it into his own thing."

In time he "circled back" to the family tradition. In 2002, at the urging of his parents, Tice visited the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Upstate New York, his first immersion in the form on such a big stage. There he saw widely known acts like Ricky Skaggs' Kentucky Thunder, Tim O'Brien and the Del McCoury Band all playing a style "with this incredible forward drive," each instrument urging the others forward and shaping a collective groove.

"That's about when I first felt 'bluegrass has an incredible energy,' " he says. And one more thing occurred to him: "My parents have this incredible storehouse of knowledge. Maybe I should pay more attention."

New sounds

Some have described "new acoustic" music as extended improvisation on bluegrass instruments - generally banjo, mandolin, fiddle, guitar and upright bass. Others call it bluegrass that eases into other genres.

Many who play it, Tice included, resist describing the genre at all, but most agree it started during the 1980s when virtuosos like banjo wizard Bela Fleck, feeling cramped by by the four-chord structures and boom-chucka rhythms popular in the old Flatt and Scruggs-style tunes, started taking their instruments to places they had rarely gone before.

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