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THILE - Ex-Nickel Creek Player's Sound Packs 'Punch' (Chgo Trib, Feb 17, 2008)

Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers - Punch (feature)


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Arts & Entertainment



By David Royko

Special to the Tribune

“Debussy was my theory teacher for about a year,” says mandolinist Chris Thile, even though he only turns 27 this month and the French composer died in 1918.

Best known for his work with Nickel Creek, the Grammy-winning newgrass band of prodigies formed when he was 8 years old, Thile recently walked away from that commercial success to fulfill a dream with his now-full time ensemble, the Punch Brothers.

The dream: to meld classical composition with American folk forms.

Violinists Mark O’Connor and Joshua Bell, mandolinists Mike Marshall and Sam Bush, cellist Yo Yo Ma, banjoist Bela Fleck, and bassist Edgar Meyer, among others, have collaborated in various combinations on classical and semi-classical crossover projects, with Fleck also recording pieces by the likes of Bach and Beethoven--and so did Pete Seeger in his early 1950s “Goofing Off Suite.” Orchestras and bluegrass bands have come together for occasional concerts and recordings, but Thile’s ambitions stretch far beyond his precedents, and the first result is “Punch” (Nonesuch, Feb. 26th).

The album’s centerpiece is “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” with Thile’s string quintet--not of the classical variety, but instead using the classic bluegrass quintet--mandolin, banjo, violin, guitar, and double bass, plus vocals. Almost belligerently difficult to classify, “The Blind…” is a 40 minute work, constructed in a classical/romantic four-movement form and using some sophisticated techniques beyond basic sonata form, but grounded in the sonic and--in spirit--aesthetic world of bluegrass. The vocals at times move unpredictably, and even if on paper they tend to conform to traditional structures, in delivery, Thile and his bandmates’ ability to stretch time occasionally pushes the lines into recitative.

Thile also uses leitmotifs, not simply as representative themes, but developed and mingled in a manner that advances the story, which explores the composer’s crises of love and faith. As complex as it gets, the music remains direct, intensely expressive--with melodic passages that stay in the memory--and reaches a satisfying, powerful climax which, like many symphonies, does not come at the very end, but prior to a dramatic coda.

“Not to be too corny,” says Thile, “but I’m aiming for something landing, hopefully, squarely in between the two disciplines….and have vocals in it, but not be vocal music, but [the vocals being] another instrument.”

Though drawing inspiration from classical models like Brahms, particularly his Fourth Symphony, and Debussy--“his string quartet had a lot to do with the whole piece,” says Thile--the music is refreshingly original.

This is no crazy quilt with visible seams, but an organic statement that not only starts a fresh branch on the newgrass tree, but on new music, period.

But like Brahms himself, inspired by a specific musician to compose his late clarinet masterpieces, Thile needed the right people to realize his vision.

“I didn’t have a clear picture of what it would sound like until I met these guys,” says Thile about his like-minded bunch of dazzling twenty-something virtuosi. “Then the ideas just started coming. Though much of it reads like a string quintet, there are parts that read like a jazz lead sheet.”

Leaving space for improvisation reflects Thile’s progressive, jazz-influenced background, and his own improvising on the eight-string has reset the bar for all who follow.

“Chris has this ability to process stuff so quickly,” says Punch banjoist Noam Pikelny, a Skokie native currently living in New York, as is ex-Californian Thile.

Pikelny recalled a rehearsal session that produced the instrumental, ‘Sometimes.’ “Everyone brought their own parts that they were happy with, and my ideas were…something that came kind of naturally to me to play. After one permutation by Chris, the part that on paper looks like my contribution became a beast to play. I was whining about it, and they were saying, ‘Hey, you wrote the thing!’”

Pikelny, who has played with New Grass Revival singer/bassist John Cowan, and the jamband Leftover Salmon; violinist Gabe Witcher, a West Coast player with extensive high-profile experience and lifelong friend of Thile’s; bassist Greg Garrison, another ex-Chicagoan, now in Colorado, who also has recorded with Leftover Salmon as well as jazz trumpeter Ron Miles; and guitarist Chris Eldridge, formerly of the Infamous Stringdusters, and bluegrass royalty--his father is Ben Eldridge of the Seldom Scene--came together through on-stage jams and informal sessions with Thile, not realizing he was sizing them up.

“Chris told us about this music he wanted to write for string quintet,” says Garrison. “We thought it would be great because it would be with people like Edgar [Meyer], Bela [Fleck], those guys.”

Laughing, he says, “But then he called us up.”

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