Reinvention adds punch to some classics:
Punch Brothers' Thile interprets Bach;
Pikelny digs into bluegrass music's roots
Mandolinist Chris Thile has won Grammy Awards and a MacArthur "genius" grant, while Grammy nominee Noam Pikelny was the first recipient of Steve Martin's Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass Music and the $50,000 that comes with it. So what are these 32-year-old founding members of the Punch Brothers, new standard-bearers for mandolin and banjo, focusing on these days?
"When I heard that Chris was doing a record of old fiddle music, I thought, 'I'd better do a record of fiddle music that sounds even older,'" Skokie native Pikelny joked.
Thile's 300-year-old fiddle music — on the recent Nonesuch album "Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 1" — is that of Johann Sebastian Bach, reassigned by the mandolinist from the bowed four-string violin to his own plucked eight strings.
That may sound a little odd, but it doesn't to Thile.
"I was pretty sure I wanted to record them when I first started working on them when I was 16 or 17," Thile said. "I found (violinist) Arthur Grumiaux's recording of the sonatas and partitas. Right after that, (the late bluegrass musician and composer of the hit 'Gentle on My Mind') John Hartford recommended (violinist) Henryk Szeryng's recording to me. Hartford loved the sonatas and partitas and was a huge Szeryng fan. The last concert he ever played, he had me come onstage to play the (Bach) E major Prelude. It goes to show that serious musicians from all walks of life agree on Bach."
It's best to agree with Thile about Bach whether one appreciates Thile's particular approach on mandolin.
"This is some of the greatest music ever written, and I dare anyone to disagree with me on that," he said. "I feel like any musical argument begins after Bach, but that Bach is something that everyone can and should agree on. But absolutely I accept any issues people have with my delivery of it. It's how I hear the music."
Thile, who has wide classical interests and is planning to tackle Bartok's sonata for solo violin, has recorded bits of Bach in the past (a gigue from the "Goldberg" Variations with fellow mandolinist Mike Marshall; the last movement of the third "Brandenburg" Concerto with the Punch Brothers; a Three-Part Invention with banjoist Bela Fleck; and a bit of the Third Partita with his former band, Nickel Creek, incorporated into their live version of "The Fox," to name four examples), but this is different.
Thile is not tossing out a morsel, but stepping into the arena of serious Bach interpretation, to be held up to and compared with a century's worth of great recordings.
"Being around Chris for the last eight years and watching him prepare for this," Pikelny said, "it was incredible, and the results are astonishing. There are different transcriptions of the Bach, different editions of it. He was always talking about how the different publishers' editions had different information."
But for Pikelny and his fiddle music project, there was only one edition.
"To me, Kenny Baker was my definitive source," he said.
In the bluegrass world, that statement will bring a nearly unanimous "Amen." Few forms of music are traceable to a single musician, but in bluegrass, all roads lead back to the mandolinist-singer-composer Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, the music's 1940s foundation stone. And of the many Blue Grass Boys (and few girls) who came through his band, fiddler Kenny Baker was Monroe's longest-serving sideman and the musician acknowledged by Monroe as his favorite fiddler. Baker approached Monroe's bluegrass with a style encompassing not only folk forms but western swing and jazz.
"Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe" is a classic instrumental album from 1976 featuring Monroe in one of his rare sideman appearances, with a bluegrass band fronted by Baker performing a dozen Monroe compositions. Pikelny loves the album and jokingly quipped to a friend that he should record "Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe."
The joke lodged in Pikelny's head and wouldn't leave, and he started looking at the classic LP in a different way.
"There was a clarity, an elegance, a drive to (Baker's) playing that I thought would really translate to the banjo," he said.
So Pikelny approached making the album (recently released on the Compass label) as a tribute to Baker, recording the same tunes in the same order as the original LP, with his banjo taking the fiddle's role in most situations and plenty of soloing from everyone, while using the opportunity to put his own stamp on the bluegrass tradition.
Enlisting stellar young pickers to help achieve his goals, Pikelny included mandolin ace Ronnie McCoury, whose father, Del, was a member of Monroe's Blue Grass Boys in the early 1960s.
"It was a very inspiring session for me," Pikelny said. "It filled a void in my career, having a record in the traditional bluegrass mode. Playing a traditional instrument in such a nontraditional manner (with the Punch Brothers) over the last eight years is kind of what gave me the ability to look backwards at this music and find a way to make it my own.
"Playing (classical/bluegrass fusion) 'The Blind Leaving the Blind,' it is Chris Thile's brainchild (released in 2008 on the Nonesuch CD 'Punch'), but I feel kind of proprietary about that, a sense of ownership, because of what it took to make what he imagined into real music on the five-string banjo. That was one of the great challenges in my career, and something that has really helped define my musicianship."
Immersion in the advanced string music of the Punch Brothers allowed Pikelny to approach the fiddler's album with fresh ears.
"When I sat down to transcribe the Kenny Baker," Pikelny said, "actually making this stuff fit on my instrument and making it musical was an exercise very similar to the Punch Brothers, as far as how to make music that is not essentially banjoistic sound banjoistic. In bluegrass or jazz, doing a standards record is often one of the first things that people do. I feel that any sooner than now would have been too soon. I wouldn't have had much to say.
"I don't think I really found my voice on the instrument until my experience playing with the Punch Brothers, so the time felt right for me to do this."
For Thile, doing his first Bach album gave him a chance to express thanks. In his more than 20-year recording career, this is the first record Thile has dedicated to his parents, Scott and Kathy.
"They instilled in me the belief that I could do anything I wanted," Thile said. "Not in a 'We'll give you the world' way, but it was always, 'You can do anything you want provided that you work hard enough.' Also, Mom and Dad also are spiritual people and for me, Bach is a very spiritual experience. He stands as a testament to man's ultimate striving to do good. It felt like a great time to try and thank Mom and Dad a little bit for giving me every opportunity to have a rich and satisfying life."
Chris Thile will perform at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Evanston, 847-467-4000; pickstaiger.org, $28 general public, $12 students
Copyright © 2013 David Royko, and Chicago Tribune Company, LLC
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