The Darol Anger-Mike Marshall Band,
(Compass Records, 1999)

Aptly subtitled String Band Music for the Next Millennium, this CD sees the reunion of longtime musical colleagues Darol Anger (who here plays primarily fiddle and baritone violin) and Mike Marshall (on guitar, mandolins and mandocello) for an adventurous 11-track exploration into the far reaches of improvisation. The quartet, completed by Derek Jones on fretted and fretless electric bass and Aaron Johnston on drums, percussion and various keyboards, takes some fun and fluid journeys together, and anyone who likes great jazz should hitch a ride.

Because this is jazz, make no mistake -- don't mistake it for bluegrass or even the more structured playing of Anger's recent Diary of a Fiddler. Sometimes Jam is funky, most of the time it swings, and other times it goes out into no man's land, the way the best of the music always does. You don't need saxes and trumpets to play jazz, as Marshall and Anger clearly demonstrate.

An eastern feel pervades "Couscous," the first cut, with a terrific bass solo by Jones, followed up by "The Gator's Back," a nod to Marshall's "Gator Strut" on his 1984 album of the same name. It's funky, bluesy, and goes a long long way off before it finally comes back home, but the trip is more than worthwhile. "Thrice Told Is True" starts with a Hendrixesque intro, teasing us with the promise of more Hendrix later on before it rolls into a two-chord riff out of which the various members squeeze several quarts of spicy improv juice. And more Hendrix we get with "Purple Haze" -- the tune is taken in a slow tempo, and Anger makes his fiddle whine and shriek like Jimi's guitar.

A startling change of pace comes with Bach's "Sarabande in B Minor," a showcase for Marshall's mandolin, whose plucked sound is fittingly reminiscent of the plucked strings of the harpsichord. Next is "Blues for Oaktown," in which the band is joined by fellow Compass artist John Burr on the Hammond B-3, which lays down a nice bluesy underpinning for the various solos. And solos are what we get en masse in "Day 1/Tune 1," basically a joint exegesis of one little chord, but it's here that we separate the jazz men from the boys. In the hands of most musicians (and a lot of chart-toppers among them), this would be an excuse for aimless noodling. No noodles here -- just four great imaginations juggling musical ideas like colored balls.

"Flight of the Fly" gets us back to the printed page, with a wonderful tune by the Brazilian mandolin/choro master Jacob Do Bandolim, an intricate melody similar to those that Chet Atkins recorded fingerstyle in the '50s, and Mike Marshall is right up to the task on the mandolin -- a beautiful contrast to the rest of the album. We're back in improv territory with "Deep Blue," which begins with Anger wailing away, followed by Marshall coming in more sweetly and developing his solo into what seems a sincere and personal highlight.

Marshall's composition, "New Spring," is one of the most gorgeous on the CD, highlighted by lovely guitar work. And we come to the end with "Autumn Aleatorics," which is a musical term that means using the element of chance to determine notes, tempi, rests, rhythm and dynamics, and yes, damn it, I had to look it up. The cut is free form and very haunting. Aaron Johnston goes delightfully crazy on the piano, and there are some wild horn and doppler effects. Though it doesn't really swing at first, give it time, and you'll find that it provides a suitably improvisational ending to a great Jam album.

Or almost the ending -- the last track is actually three or four minutes longer than listed, and after a few minutes of silence there's an additional brief final blues jam with the only vocal of the album about goin' down that ole highway. Since Anger is credited with "ranting," I imagine he's the perpetrator.

If you're into jazz or new acoustic music, you can't go wrong with this one -- great jamming, great players, great tunes. So what's not to like?

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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