Looking Back – Phillips, Grier, and Flinner
Compass Records 7 4342 2
One of the biggest problems with bluegrass might be how speed and
virtuousity makes the genre painfully redundant. Consider how horrendous
Bach's "Goldberg Variations" would sound if played three times too fast and
with no dynamic variance. The work would be degraded to little more than a
collection of scales and arpeggios, becoming the equivalent of an etude for
the player. The beauty and individuality of the composition would hide
underneath the music, almost awaiting excavation from its catacomb, housed
with hundreds of other songs sounding exactly the same due to speed.
Which potentially explicates bluegrass's quick entry and then exit from the
national spotlight. Once everyone heard "Man of Constant Sorrow" for the
one-hundredth (could I say one-millionth?) time, all other bluegrass sounded
the same. Banjo, mandolin, guitar, bass and three-part harmonies, whether
the Soggy Bottom Boys, Ricky Skaggs, Blue Highway, or fill-in-the-blank
lacked any clear distinction.
Albums such as Strength in Numbers' The Telluride Sessions and now
Phillips, Grier and Flinner's Looking Back serve an imperative role
in reinvigorating bluegrass with musicality and differentiation. Either by
constructing original compositions imbued with classical and jazz concepts
or by reexamining various standards from the bluegrass songbook to expose
the music's latent beauty, bluegrass as a genre can expand beyond egocentric
Using the Strength in Numbers compositional ideas of changing tempos and
chord inversions, Phillips, Grier and Flinner allow these bluegrass
standards to breathe. With Bill Monroe's "Tennessee Blues," Grier's Joe
Pass-inspired chordal movements become buttressed by Flinner and Phillips'
intuitive listening, resulting in an atmosphere of examination rather than
self-aggrandizement. No longer focused on the "hot licks", the song and not
the performer become the center of the performance.
The group's improvisations align impeccably with the introspective
atmosphere created by the changes in the core structure of the songs.
Performances of "I Am a Pilgrim," "Dixie Hoedown," "Monroes Hornpipe," and
"Old Dangerfield," are marked by enjoyable improvisational deviations. At
one moment, Matt Flinner plays a facsimile of Bill Monroe's solo, only to
slowly build his solo with jazz-based concepts. As Flinner moves, the whole
band changes "Old Dangerfield" from banal bluegrass banter to a slow
bubbling, spacious composition where Grier and Flinner play the role of
adventurers in the previously detailed "hermetic catacomb".
By including Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue" and McCoy Tyner's "Search for
Peace" on Looking Back the trio also offer the bluegrass compositions
further profundity. They no longer serve as compositions befitting
masturbatory performing, but instead have the same redeeming qualities as
most heralded jazz compositions. As a result, the trio, tantamount to the
Strength in Numbers creed, reveals how substance always usurps flair,
especially when flair hinders musical variation.