MANDOLINAS A GO GO
Sorry for the long gap between posts, but it’s been an unusually active couple of weeks for me, musically speaking. I got back from Rome last week having seen and heard some Neapolitan mandolin picking, interesting if not stirring. I’ll come back to this in a minute. I also went to a performance of La Traviata while I was there, and that WAS stirring, to say the least (you can’t beat Italy for hearing Italian opera). Besides the Rome trip…
I chilled with mid-’Sixties Ash Grove pickin’ pal, Taj Mahal, at the Rochester Jazz Festival last Friday (See blog). We didn’t get to jam together, just talked for awhile about old times, but playing yack-yack catch-up on the 40-odd years we haven’t seen each other was awesome. We’ve both put on a lot of weight, but I win for Most Hair, since Taj has shaved his head. We’ll get together again in NY soon. We took a blood oath.
Besides seeing Taj I had to prepare for a rehearsal with my woodwind quintet, AND… audition for a guitar gig with Anne Pasquale, a smart, foxy actress who presents dramatizations and profiles of important events and people in American history to school kids. In all, more actual playing than I’ve done for a while and it feels great.
Now back to mandolins. (Click on the photos to see what they are)
The cast of characters the nite I saw the mandolinistas in Rome was two singers in the Neapolitan tradition, a young man and woman, backed up by a guitarist and three mandolin-type instrument players. The songs were exactly what comes to mind when you think of this genre: O Sole Meo, Santa Lucia, Funiculi, Funicula and other strongly melodic tunes that have had subtle influences on American music. But that’s another post.
The two mandolins and one mandola (a larger mandolin), were, of course, round-bellied, which puts them and their players in a different universe entirely from our flat-backed Bluegrass axes and their pickers, and I wanted to find out if the Italian guys knew any more about our mandolin world than we do about theirs, which is little.
The answer is yes, if only because the Italians know the name of our universe, Bluegrass, and I doubt if many of us know the name of theirs, “Canzone Napolitana.”
But one of the players actually knew the names of “Beel” Monroe, the father of Bluegrass, and Lloyd Loar, the inventor of the F-5 mandolin, incorporating in it many acoustic and design features that made it the odds-on instrument of choice for all Bluegrass players 20 years later and after. The F-5 left the round-bellies in the dust, in my opinion, on every front: volume, sound quality, resonance, playability and design. You deserve a little explication here:
Really serious Bluegrass mandolin players like Bill Monroe, Scott Hambly, Roland White (Clarence’s brother), Jesse McReynolds and David Grisman are (were, in the case of Bill Monroe) very involved with their instruments. They all, I think, play specimens from Lloyd Loar’s vintage Gibson years, 1922-24. The master builder’s signature is probably on all their instruments, and a certain run of serial numbers is particularly important to them. You can find it, as well as great pics of beautiful instruments and the whole nine yards of data on mandolins at: http://www.mandolinarchive.com/perl/list_mandolins.pl?all.
I got this site from Scott Hambly, a very close friend and fellow musician who I played with in a Bluegrass band called the Ridgerunners (q.v. somewhere on this site) nearly 50—yes, 50!—years ago at UC Berkeley in California.
BTW, for more on Lloyd Loar start with: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lloyd_Loar).
I’ve gotten pretty close to some cherry F-5’s, including ones owned by the four players I just mentioned. They are beautiful, complex instruments that project cutting, centered tones a long, long way. When chorded and chopped with a flatpick an F-5 can cut thru any other Bluegrass instrument, even a Gibson Mastertone banjo. Someone said that you could hear Bill Monroe’s rhythm chords in the last row of the Hollywood Bowl one nite, which is amazing, since he was playing at the Grand Ol’ Opry at the time.
And BTW, a prime, Lloyd Loar-signed F-5 with the right serial number goes for around $200,000 these days. You don‘t want to leave one of those babies in a taxi.
Compared to the biting, robustly resonant F-5, round-bellied Mandolini Italiani seem, to my ears, to barely eke out a quiet, fragile tone that sounds like fairies dancing on stardust, to quote Greg Lasser, a banjo and steel guitar player from the Ridgerunners.
In my Italiano cattivo (bad Italian) I asked the guy that seemed to know more than the others if he’d ever played a Lloyd Loar and, if not, would he like to try one. He seemed about as interested in doing that as Jesse McReynolds or David Grisman would be about playing an Italian mandolin: i.e., not particularly.
By the time I finished as much research as I could do in ten minutes, the three mandolinisti and one chitarrista had finished putting their instruments back in their cases, bade me a pleasant arrividerci and eased out the door. Gives you an idea of how curious they were about the best mandolins in the world.
Thus, once more, proof beyond doubt that Italian mandolins and mandolin players and Bluegrass mandolins and their players are the apples and oranges of string band instruments, as we’ve always known they were.
So, as the sun sets over the ancient, time-washed shards of the proud Roman Forum and other soulful ruins, we say Arrividerci Roma e’ il tuo mandolinisti (or something like that) and mile grazie for your interest.
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