CD review by Tony Smith
TN2358-84 – $25
TN155 Apr 23
This album of thirteen tracks shows three skilled musical practitioners at their creative best.
As they explain in the sleeve notes, they put their instruments together and followed the path that emerged.
The trio comprises James Church (dobro, vocals), Glenn Skarratt (guitar, mandolin, vocals, bass) and Simon Watts (violin, viola, backing vocals).
They are joined by guests Todd Phillips (double bass), Rachel Johnston (cello), Genni Kane (backing vocals) and Steve Gunning (djembe, tambourine, cymbals).
Compositions are largely by Church and Skarratt but they are joined by Watts in writing for ‘Soft Landings’, by Cielle Montgomery on ‘Go Find Your Own’, Kane and Skarratt collaborate on ‘The Thing About Love’ and they also cover works by Mike Marshall, ‘Honey Bee’s Secret’ and Tim O’Brien, ‘Brother Wind’.
Church wrote ‘Little Jiggle’.
As well as bluegrass mandolin maestros Marshall and O’Brien, the trio also acknowledge the influence of Bela Fleck, Dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas and Chris Thile.
Most importantly however, was the trio’s shared love of contemporary acoustic string music.
They trusted one another and pushed their personal limits as they took their own ideas and let the resulting collaboration lead them into new areas.
They went on ‘small journeys, rich in imagery, through a range of musical landscapes’.
At times, the result seems almost classical, while at others, there is a jazz like feeling of freedom.
‘The Fall Line’ provides a bright opening where the bowed instruments soar in the second half.
‘Soft Landings’, opened by a gentle arpeggio, acknowledges the deaths of two dear friends.
In the ‘Honey Bee’s Secrets’ the mandolin creates the perfect flitting image for this little creature.
‘Moonrise On Hobby’s Yards’ was written to accompany a painting of that name by artist David Lake, whose Hog Bristle Studio is nearby at Neville.
If Mussorgsky could base compositions around ‘pictures in an exhibition’, why not String Theories?
The painting has been described as evocative and so is the music.
I found ‘Inner Spaces’ a very enjoyable tune, begun by the mandolin then taken up by Dobro and fiddle.
Among the songs, ‘Go Find Your Own’ is the easiest on the ear.
The concluding track and the longest, ‘Waking the Deep’, has an ethereal start, but then the pace picks up.
The addition of percussion helps to give this track something of a free flowing, fretless, middle eastern feel.
It is a great pleasure to hear musicians perform without the constraints of pre-written music.
It is obvious that the priority for the members of this accomplished trio was to listen to what was emerging from the instruments near them.
The sense of ensemble which emerges from String Theories is something to which every musician should aspire.
James Church, Mark Jarratt and Simon Watts have done a great job waking the qualities that lie deep within the best musicians.