Bluegrass Unlimited Review

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Bluegrass Unlimited, May 2000

As we all know, Bill Monroe took up the mandolin because it was the instrument no one else in his family wanted to play, and for years, the instrument languished behind the more glamorous fiddle and banjo among those who played bluegrass. But in recent years, the mandolin has experienced an explosion of interest, drawing superb musicians like Chris Thile, David Harvey, the late Dave Peters and many more. The mandolin's appeal has spread far beyond bluegrass into blues, rock, jazz, Celtic and classical fields, and popular interest in the diminutive instrument is greater today than at any time since the heyday of the mandolin orchestras which swept America in a wave of popularity just after the turn of the last century.

The three musicians on Travellers all have contributed significantly to the widespread acceptance of mandolin, and their musical union here has created a truly exceptional record.

Ranging across such diverse musicscapes as bluegrass, Latin, Irish and Gypsy swing, the tunes included here capture the very best the mandolin and its related instruments have to offer.

As always Butch Baldassari plays with a keen sense of taste and refinement, honing his technique to deliver knockout solos or sensitive backup or harmony lines. Just listen to his dead-on Monroe chops on Big Mon's timeless "Dead March" or his twin mandolin work with John Reischman on Frank Wakefield's "Waltz in the Bluegrass" for a lesson in technique, taste and timing.

Reischman reigns as the king of pure mandolin tone, coaxing the most musical energy from his fabled Loar F-5 mandolin and a new mandola from Idaho luthier Lawrence Smart. Here, he recreates "Birdland Breakdown," the classic tune he originated with the Tony Rice Unit in the 1980s as a bouncier, swingier tune, "Birdland Bounce." Few other mandolinists have demonstrated such a diverse interest, capturing musical inspirations from sources on both the north and south sides of the border.

Robin Bullock, who won the mandolin championships at Winfield and has a commanding interest in Celtic musical styles, contributes brilliant mandolin, cittern and guitar to the project. His work on the old-time Kentucky fiddle tune "Little Jacky Wilson" and his flatpicking guitar solo on "Chief Sitting Bull" are great examples of his broad talents.

Individually, there're plenty of brilliant solos and inventive interpretations on this outstanding record. But most of all, "Travellers" is a CD where each musician works hard to support the melody and the other musicians. This is mandolin-based ensemble playing at its best, filled with grace and charm and warmth and insight. I can't think of an instrumental CD I've enjoyed more recently.

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