by James M. Manheim
Mike Marshall and Chris Thile, when they come to the Ark on Monday, December 15, will likely deliver the most virtuosically spectacular concert you'll hear this year. If this weren't music for the arcane combination of two mandolins, you'd be reading about it in the paper every week. You might think, hmmm, two mandolins I can miss that. Big mistake.
Thile ("THEE-lee," with the "th" as in thin) is the mandolinist from the new acoustic band Nickel Creek, the quartet of photogenic and ferociously talented young Californians who, without a shred of permission from the marketing powers that be, landed in the Billboard pop top twenty recently. He's been making recordings since before his teens, and he's now twenty. He's got blazing speed in quiet spaces; he's so fast that the ear can't quite keep up. You're not sure you really heard what you just heard.
In Mike Marshall, a veteran of progressive bluegrass who played for years with David Grisman and has worked at one time or another with a host of musicians in the genre, Thile has found a partner who can channel his prodigal energies. Marshall turns Thile away from the acoustic alternative rock that Nickel Creek sometimes plays and toward the improvisatory spaces of the bluegrass far left field. On their album Into the Cauldron, which Marshall and Thile took their time putting together and honed to perfection, they offer complex duo structures with openings for individual improvisation. Thile bursts out unexpectedly all over, and the shifting point where improvisation meets quite ambitious composition will fascinate a listener.
Their music doesn't demolish genre boundaries. They do a Brazilian piece and Charlie Parker's "Scrapple from the Apple," but there are also several traditional tunes on Into the Cauldron. In general, Marshall and Thile are firmly within the tradition of bluegrass-jazz fusion begun by Grisman and elaborated by a group of marginally well-known but fabulously committed players. Compared with banjoist Bela Fleck, whose
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