Darol Anger,
Diary of a Fiddler
(Compass Records, 1999)

Here is one of the best, most varied fiddle CDs you're likely to hear for a long time to come. Fiddler extraordinaire Darol Anger has long proved himself at home in any musical abode the fiddle can enter, be it bluegrass, classical, jazz, Celtic or those still undiscovered. On this new CD from adventurous Compass Records, he chronicles a three-year odyssey across the continent in which he played duets with other fiddlers. The result is a truly jaw-dropping array of music, a CD any fiddle fan (and anyone who just loves music) will listen to over and over.

On most of these cuts, Anger plays a baritone violin, a regular violin strung with thick baritone violin strings. The sound is deep and resonant, providing a solid bottom when his duet partner takes the lead, and a beautiful contrast when Anger does. The twin fiddle sound also benefits from the wider tonal range the lower instrument brings to the party. On many of these cuts with double stops, you'd swear you were hearing a string quartet rather than two fiddles, so full is the range of sound.

The CD starts with a bang, a slashing duet with Cape Breton fiddler Natalie McMaster called "Melt the Teakettle," and the intense, searing sounds might do just that. Bluegrass master Stuart Duncan is next, with a "Lee Highway Blues" in which two very non-traditional bluegrass fiddles create a Coplandesque suite that ends with the finest fiddlistic impressions of truck horns and Doppler effects you'll ever hear. Anger and Suzy Thompson's fiddles are tuned down for the next tune, "Les Barres de la Prison," a Cajun-style classic that glows and rumbles with sweet menace. "Banish Misfortune" with Martin Hayes turns to Celtic music, with an arrangement adapted from the Fiddles of Doom that turns the two instruments into an entire rhythm section along with the melody and harmony. The baritone violin is especially low and rich here.

Next is one of the real highlights, "John Henry," performed by an aggregation called the Nashville Lumberyard, which consists of Anger, Duncan, Vassar Clements, Sam Bush, Tim O'Brien, John Hartford and Matt Glaser, ALL on fiddle, and Derek Jones on bass. If you've heard those mass fiddle tunes at bluegrass festivals, you may shudder at the thought, expecting something along the lines of "Golden Slippers," in which half the fifty fiddles are out of tune. Put your mind at rest. This is more like a prayer meeting, complete with call and response, the respondents muttering "Amen" and "Hallelujah" while the preachers trade off homilies, but only in music. An amazing and audacious cut that you really shouldn't try at home!

A complete change of pace follows, with Anger and Hayes doing "A Little Help From My Friends," a cut that starts with a classical-sounding pulse reminiscent of the beginning of that other Sgt. Pepper classic, "She's Leaving Home." Gorgeous and glorious. The rock vein continues to be mined with Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile (slight return)" in which Bruce Molsky shares fiddle duties. I'd always thought of Molsky as an oldtime player, but he proves he can rock on this one!

Jazz is next, as fiddle legend Richard Greene and jazz legend (and former Cecil Taylor bandmate) Buell Neidlinger join Anger in a rollicking "Bemsha Swing," which swings into the infinitely bluesy Vassar Clements and "Tone Guys' Boogie," in which Anger's baritone underneath gives a great blues boost to Vassar's always soulful playing. An eerie, ceremonial sounding Celtic strain is next, with Alasdair Fraser and the lovely "Aran Boat Song."

A live improvisation with Matt Glaser follows, based on "Working on a Building," and it's a joy to hear these two virtuosi trading ideas back and forth. There's a softer and sweeter creation at work with "Willow Garden Fantasy," recorded by Anger, Greene, and Michael Kott on cello "in a cabin way after midnight" at Mark O'Connor's fiddle camp. The sound is suitably late night and dreamy (but where is Mark? It would have been nice to have an O'Connor/Anger duet). Stuart Duncan makes a reappearance for another taste of blues and bluegrass with the "Carroll County Suite," and the CD ends with Anger jamming with two up-and-comers, Hanneke Cassel and Casey Driessen, a nice look at the future of fiddling after such a comprehensive tour of its present.

This is a flawless CD, offering a wide variety of the many styles in which Darol Anger is not only comfortable, but in which he excels. It's a great gift from an amazing musician, and if the sound of the fiddle touches your heart, even a little, you'd be a fool to miss it.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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