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Musical alchemy

Bluegrass, Celtic, hillbilly jazz—Phillips, Grier and Flinner got it all


If you love acoustic music and have not heard of bassist Todd Phillips, guitarist David Grier, and mandolin player Matt Flinner, you owe it to yourself to find a copy of Matt Flinner’s The View from Here. The disc hosts the richly textured music of the above-named artists with the accompaniment of Stuart Duncan, Darol Anger and Tim O’Brien on violin, Jerry Douglas on dobro and Mike Marshall on bouzouki. This recording, approachable and welcoming, is a starting point, the happy hello at the door, with more possibilities to follow. It is a joyful jam in your living room; a meeting of alchemists turning musical notes into wind-blown hickory trees; the sound of gladness; the still edge of the pines.

Playing a wide variety of styles, from bluegrass to Celtic to hillbilly jazz, Phillips, Grier and Flinner have a subtle interaction that, perhaps, is best described as grace. It comes across as pure intuition, the ability, each moment, to flow like a gentle stream, whirl around a moving center, or rise into the air. I have never much cared for listening to Celtic reels until I heard these men play them. They endow their arrangements with a quality of American earth that roots them here, in our time, our land. There are no lyrics on any of their recordings, though many of the songs could easily be ballads. Soloing is not meant to highlight a verse break, but rather, is part of the story, with delicate allusions to singing voices.

Matt Flinner’s mandolin can ramble along for a while like an old Nash on a country road, then raise up like a flock of birds, thread the trees and turn like pleated skirt. It can croon a tender ballad and sing a babe to sleep with the sweetest simplicity. Flinner is also a prolific composer. He has a gift for arranging diverse styles with the skill of a master joiner.

David Grier, on guitar, seems to play outside the box in an endless variety of styles, from colorful Celtic reels to gentle ballads, smooth Hillbilly Jazz or raucous R&B. Some of the off-color inflections he weaves into his soloing would make Thelonious Monk proud. Grier’s playing is often joyful and gorgeous, cascading notes with the tracery of water falling from breathtaking heights. Ascending scales with the ineffable flexibility of line and direction of world-class rock climbers, sans the snobbery.

Todd Phillips’ quicksilver bass playing intuitively supports an ever-shifting simultaneity of instrumental voices, solidly rooting an angel band to the life giving earth. His musical underpinnings have a rare clarity that can support the finest melodic filigree and, while decidedly not aggressive, can drive effortlessly with the pickup of an eight-cylinder engine. Phillips is also the masterful producer of Matt Flinner’s 1998, award-winning debut, The View from Here, and more recently, Latitude. His credits also include Panorama, David Grier’s finely crafted and gentle-spirited debut release; Phillips, Grier and Flinner’s, self-titled, experimental trio recording (which the group is presently touring); a Grammy award-winning compilation tribute to Bill Monroe, True Life Blues; and Judith Edelman’s latest, Drama Queen.

The trio’s self-titled release is a bit of a departure from previous efforts: a daring collection of trio pieces, “filled with,” as the cover notes say, “pristine tones, rich melodies and plenty of breathing room.” Without violins, dobro and bouzouki, which, when included, help to fill the space between voices, each of the trio’s instruments necessarily takes on more of a distinct personality. There is the contemplative quality of a jazz trio here, a far quieter exposition of stories, well worth listening to. The individual arrangements are more complex and personal: wordless confidences are exchanged, not necessarily for us, something overheard. The players seem to be sharing old, well-known stories, and enjoying events again in the telling.

Whatever they play together, Celtic, bluegrass or Dawg-style, quiet, joyous, funky or smooth, their music is tasty like the best berry pie you ever had.

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