Following the Fiddle: Talking with Darol Anger Raises a Comotion
Darol Anger has been a giant in the world of string music as a member of Turtle Island String Quartet, David Grisman Quintet, Montreaux, the Darol Anger-Mike Marshall Band, Psychograss, Newgrange and, most recently, Comotion. The new supergroup, formed by String Cheese Incident mandolinist-violinist Michael Kang, and has just released its first disc, the wonderfully eclectic, melodic, harmonic yet rocking musical summit, “Head West.”
Besides Kang and Anger, the mix of jazz, classical, bluegrass, Celtic and rock also includes:
Paul McCandless, a frequent String Cheese guest who has redefined melody in the 20th century as a member of the Paul Winter Consort and Oregon.
The rhythm section of Tye North and Jeff Sipe of Leftover Salmon, a jam band that, along with String Cheese, a fired a healthy interest in bluegrass among young music listeners.
Anger-Marshall drummer Aaron Johnston, who has worked with everyone from budding bluegrass great Tony Furtado to legendary Latin percussionist Pete Escovedo.
Mike Marshall, a multi-string instrumentalist who has played with Anger for 22 years in the David Grisman Quintet, Montreaux and the Anger-Marshall Band; founded the Modern Mandolin Quartet and collaborates frequently with classical-bluegrass-jazz bassist Edgar Meyer.
No stranger to all-star projects, Anger is a member with Marshall of the hot, risk-taking progressive bluegrass ensembles, Psychograss, which also features progressive bluegrass pioneer Tony Trischka, founding DGQ bassist Todd Phillips and flat-picking extraordinaire David Grier and Newgrange with longtime Anger collaborator Tim O’Brien. Producer of the Smithsonian-like roots anthology, “Heritage Folk Music Project,” Anger recently released ‘Diary of a Fiddler,’ featuring duets and trios with the such bluegrass greats as Vassar Clements, Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan; the boundary-busting celtic fiddler Natalie McMaster; and young upstart Casey Driessen, whose musical styles vary nearly as much Anger’s. A one-time member of the jazzy chamber music outfit, The Turtle Island String Quartet, Anger also collaborated with Marshall on their latest, ‘Brand New Can,’ a follow-up to the appropriately entitled 1999 effort ‘Jam.’
Nothing like his last name, the sweet, gracious Anger packed into a half hour a lifetime of string music and a positive spin on its very bright future. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the following conversation as much as I did and when you’re through, please visit www.comotion.cc and www.darolanger.com for much more info.
Out of all the groups and projects you’ve been involved in, which does Comotion remind you of most both chemistry and sound-wise?
I think that one of the reasons that I wanted to do this project — and I have no lack of projects (laughs) — is that it didn’t really remind that much of any other group. I think possibly it somewhat reminds me of the intergenerational aspect of the David Grisman Quintet. The thing about the group that I like the most is that there are three age groups represented. I guess that goes back to the Grisman Quintet really where we had the older guys and the younger guys. The younger guys were soaking up as much as they could from the older guys and the older guys were very much enjoying the blast of energy and enthusiasm of the younger guys. In that sense, it’s like the Grisman Quintet. The difference now is that Paul and Mike and I are the older guys (laughs).
But there is a big difference there in that Michael is the guy who organized this and he’s a young guy. I really admire him for that. He’s got a lot on the ball. He reminds me of what I had been like at that age. He’s a got a wonderful sense of what’s appropriate to play in any given situation. He’s a got a wonderful melodic sense too. He can reach a lot of different melodies.
What do you think Comotion will sound like live compared to the record?
I’m hoping it’s going to stretch out a lot. I think everybody’s aiming for that. Because we had a short time to put the record together and a short time to record it, we wanted to get something really concise to show off our arranging and composing skill. I’m really proud that putting it together so quickly, there’s a lot of content jammed into a small amount of space there. It’s all different people who’d never played together before, people coming from different places. I’m certainly thrilled to have gotten to play with one of my heroes, Paul McCandless, who I’ve been following ever since the first Oregon record. I’m looking up at Paul and looking back at these guys.
I know the record’s called ‘Head West,’ but I’m surprised you’re not planning to tour more in the East. I imagine all your schedules are too busy.
It’s almost solely dictated by Michael Kang’s schedule with String Cheese. That band is exploding. It’s getting so popular. It’s on sort of the Dave Matthews track. I think we all hoped to do more with the group. And it may happen. But at this point, it’s just not physically doable. We still haven’t figured out how to get microscopic objects appear in the same place at the same time.
That would have to be with your busy schedule too. Given that schedule, why was Comotion worth doing?
For me, it was the chance to work with Paul and a chance to work with these younger folks that I really enjoyed playing with. I go out as a pretty regular guest of String Cheese. Paul has been also. It’s one of the few cultural groups right now where the younger players, where the young people are really paying attention to and looking up to the older guys and the older guys are actually still doing something vital. I don’t know how many other areas this is happening in. I can’t speak with a lot of knowledge about other specific genres. But it seems to be that with this kind of music from the mid-60s, this kind of instrumental non-specific American vernacular music, that the rest of the world is starting to catch up. It’s not that the younger guys are trying to rebel. They’re actually real interested in what we have to say.
That’s kind of like what it was for you compared to somebody like Stephane Grappelli or Flatt & Scruggs.
Yeah, it’s much like that. They’re actually idolized a lot more, but there is this feeling of an unbroken chain. It almost like classical artists who can trace their mentors back in an unbroken chain. My mentor is David Grisman. He can trace his back to Ralph Rinzler of the Smithsonian Institute. He’s the discoverer of Doc Watson and brought Bill Monroe into the cities. He did so much for American traditional music. These youngsters are actually paying attention to all this, so it’s pretty flattering.
Is it almost like, yet not quite as commercial, as what Pete Seeger calls ‘the folk scare’ of the 1960s?
It’s proceeding in a somewhat different way, I think.
Yeah. That’s something that Sam Bush did, bring the stuff into the realm of accessibility. It’s really not out of the direction. Most folk music, certainly fiddle tunes, were meant for dancing. So in a way, instead of it being this great artistic statement, it’s actually somewhat in its original realm. There’s huge bunches of young folks who are interested in this stuff, but they don’t know what they’re hearing, they don’t know why they’re interested. They just like it because it isn’t Seagrams pushing it on them or whatever huge corporation. It feels like a grass-roots movement; although it could be co-opted at any time if people could just figure out how to do that. Certainly this MP3 business is a way.
But a lot of these kids remind me of when I first picked up a John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers record when I was 13 years old. I was like, ‘Wow, what the heck is this? It sounds a little bit like what I’ve been listening to but not really.’ And then on the back of the record, they start talking about Robert Johnson and I’m like, ‘Who’s that?’ And so you get into Robert Johnson and you just follow that. I think a lot of these kids may be on that same path. The vast majority of them will probably just move onto something else, but at least they’ll have gotten some exposure to music with a roots orientation.