Pressing Issues, Guest Genre Edition: The David Grisman Quintet, The David Grisman Quintet (1977 Kaleidoscope Records reissue)

Original Pressing: Kaleidoscope, F-5

David Grisman (mand), Tony Rice (g), Darol Anger (vn, mand on “Ricochet”), Todd Phillips (mand), Bill Amatneek (b)

Cover design: Ted Sharpe

Recorded by Bill Wolf at 1750 Arch Studios, Berkeley, California; October, November, and December 1976

Originally released in 1977

They started calling them Dawg music,
The weird tunes that were no longer bluegrass,
Not only jazz, tunes with a difference…
The Dawg’s own music.
– Janice Bain (from the back of the sleeve)

Clockwise from top: Tony Rice, Darol Anger, David Grisman, Bill Amatneek, and Todd Phillips.

Some bloggers encourage the community spirit inherent in the occasional “guest blogger” feature. From time to time, I’ll write about an album that isn’t strictly jazz, so I guess you might think of it as a “guest genre.” And I will confess from the outset that this record is not a jazz jazz album. But calling it a crossover record oversimplifies it. No, for this utterly unique music, one cannot improve upon what David Grisman’s friends called this  back in the seventies. It’s Dawg music. And it’s also one of my favorite records of all-time.

I was probably in the 9th grade when my brother-in-law turned me on to this album. His hi-fi setup included a nice pair of Advent speakers and I still vividly remember being blown away the first time I heard the tune “Blue Midnite.” It sounded exotic, like nothing I’d ever heard before. This was serious music. And both the musicianship and the audio quality drew me in immediately.

For the uninitiated, as one of the pioneers of New Acoustic Music, mandolinist and New Jersey native David Grisman (AKA “Dawg”) has been one of the most influential artists in American acoustic music for the last half century. (By the way, the term acoustic music almost always refers to music played on stringed instruments, as we have here in the David Grisman Quintet. But…isn’t most jazz acoustic, as well? Just putting that out there.) Before he started recording under his own name in the mid-’70s, Grisman had already appeared on dozens of other people’s records, in genres from jug band to pop, and with artists from the Grateful Dead to James Taylor.

If I were to write a memoir about the role that music has played in my life, there would be few clues that The David Grisman Quintet (DGQ) would rank so highly in my personal list of “Desert Island Discs.” To begin with, I am not a fan of traditional bluegrass music. In fact, most of it has a nails-on-a-blackboard effect on my ears. The tyranny of the I-V bass line is certainly a huge factor, but I reckon it’s the harmonic structure of bluegrass that I irritates me most. Throw in bluegrass vocals and you’ve created a musical circle of hell.

So here’s the deal: On his quintet records, David Grisman creates something fresh and exciting, combining traditional bluegrass instruments with the harmonies and rhythms of jazz. Imagine a circular dial that lets you control a band’s sound. Turn it all the way to the left and it’s mainstream bluegrass; all the way to the right and it’s straight-ahead jazz. Unscientifically, I’d place DGQ somewhere around two o’clock. Plenty of the complexity of jazz harmonies, composition, and improvisation to keep me listening.

From a technical perspective, DGQ is incredibly well-recorded, with, dare I say, as much of an “in the room” sound as the best Rudy Van Gelder recordings. It is impossible to imagine that one could do a better job at capturing stringed instruments.

As stated above, this record walks the line between jazz and bluegrass, coming out decidedly closer to jazz. Unlike bluegrass soloists, who almost always use Aeolian (i.e., natural minor) scales when playing in minor keys, the Quintet members are much more likely to go with the Dorian mode. Instant jazzification (almost). In fact, most of the tunes on this record could be described as modal.

As for the musicians, virtuosos all, perhaps guitarist Tony Rice deserves the closest consideration. He was only 25 years-old when this record was recorded, so he wasn’t yet the towering figure in bluegrass and folk music that he’d eventually become. But Rice’s virtuosity is all over this record, especially in his flawless picking technique. And perhaps surprisingly, Rice had to work hard to meet the requirements of Grisman’s tunes. Having been raised on country and bluegrass techniques, he was essentially unfamiliar with jazz harmonies. Thus, he had to learn many new chords and chord voicings, as well as become fluent in playing the sorts of scales required to take the music away from bluegrass and toward…Dawg. Check out his comping on “Blue Midnite” or “Swing 51” to hear some chords you don’t normally hear in bluegrass. The fact that he did so in a relatively short amount of time is no small feat.

The eight tunes here represent a range of forms and tempos, from the easygoing lilt of Rice’s “Swing 51” to the blistering tempo of E.M.D. Throughout, the rhythms explored by the various mandolinists in their single note improvisations are beautifully married to the jazzy chords with which Rice urges them on. And although he doesn’t arpeggiate in his solos the way a jazz guitarist might, Rice makes the leap across the bluegrass/jazz chasm fairly effortlessly. Bassist Bill Amatneek does a wonderful job burning through the uptempo numbers, walking with a complexity that’s more Village Vanguard than Grand Ole Opry. Finally, Darol Anger probably has the least “jazz cred” in the quintet, both rhythmically and melodically, but is a fine soloist in his own right. This is not a knock against his ability, but merely an observation about his stylistic choices.

On an album like this, that rare sort in which not a single note sounds out of place, it is difficult to choose highlights, as they are so abundant. On most tracks, the mandolins and violin (I refuse to call it a fiddle) serve as the “front line”, with guitar and bass as the rhythm section. The inherent staccato of the mandolin vs. the violin’s legato during ensemble sections makes for some beautiful “heads”, particularly on “Swing 51.” And after the 9/4 (!) intro to “Fish Scale”, Bill Amatneek and the mandolins open it up and swing as hard as anything without a drummer can. With the mandolins doing the ride cymbal’s job by percussively comping via palm-muted strings, it absolutely kills.

A few other outstanding Grisman albums include Hot Dawg (1980, Horizon SP-31), Quintet ’80 (1980, Warner Bros. BSK 3469), and the absurdly brilliant David Grisman’s Acoustic Christmas (1983, Rounder 0190), which has to be the greatest Christmas record ever made by a Jewish artist. Sorry Kenny.

Collecting Notes

  • 1977 reissue
  • blue silhouette label
  • NM/NM

This was an eBay score from a couple of years ago. It probably represents one of the highest “musical quality to price” ratios of any eBay purchase I’ve made. And it looks almost brand new.

I’d owned this on CD since the late eighties, but decided that I should really own such a special record on vinyl after all these years. This pressing is an early reissue, from the year of the original release. The  labels on the first pressing are orange, with Kaleidoscope running across the middle (the “O” creates the hole in the center of the disc). The next two pressing saw the same design, but with blue labels. As seen in the photos accompanying this post, the labels were redesigned again, this time retaining the blue from the 2nd and 3rd pressings, but adding a silhouette of the Quintet.

The various pressings of this record are not difficult to find on either eBay or Discos and may be obtained for a relative pittance, usually in top condition.

Additionally, the CD reissues (and the versions available on the major streaming services) include a couple of previously unreleased bonus tracks from these sessions, including a pretty faithful rendition of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grapelli’s 1937 tune “Minor Swing.”

As an extra feature, here’s a later DGQ lineup featuring Mark O’Connor and Rob Wasserman peforming “Dawg’s Rag” on Austin City Limits in 1980. This tune is the last track on side 2 and is thoroughly illustrative of the incredible DGQ sound.


Any other Dawg fans out there? Thoughts on “acoustic music”? Let me know in the comments!

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