Dawg Jazzgrass & Spacegrass

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When a number of young musicians gathered at mandolinist David Grisman's home in 1975, they had little idea that they were making music history. Guitarist Tony Rice resigned from J.D. Crowe and the New…
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When a number of young musicians gathered at mandolinist David Grisman's home in 1975, they had little idea that they were making music history. Guitarist Tony Rice resigned from J.D. Crowe and the New South and came to California where he moved into Grisman's basement. Todd Phillips played a second mandolin and introduced a young fiddle player named Darol Anger to Grisman. When Bill Amatneek filled in on bass, the David Grisman Quintet was born. After months of practice and a sold-out first gig, the new acoustic jazz burst onto the musical scene. The music the David Grisman Quintet played on their debut has been called everything from dawg (after Grisman's nickname), to spacegrass (the name of Rice's publishing company), to jazzgrass. It features instrumental finesse in the tradition of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli, with intense jams on acoustic instruments. Dawg would eventually incorporate everything from Bèla Fleck's banjo work to the more classically tinged Turtle Island Quartet. The individual players of the David Grisman Quintet would also prove central to the development of the music. "Dawg mandolin player David Grisman has explored American folk, bluegrass, and jazz music traditions for over thirty years...creating his own niche and individual sound instead of conforming to existing modes," writes B. Kimberly Taylor. Grisman wasn't always sure what to do with the new music he was writing during the late '60s and early '70s. He worked with a number of progressive bands like Muleskinner and the Great American Music Band where he surrounded himself with progressive musicians like Peter Rowan and Richard Greene. Although he recorded the first piece of dawg music -- "Opus 57" -- with Muleskinner in 1973, it was only with the birth of the David Grisman Quintet that he realized his vision of a pure instrumental acoustic music. "Richard Greene and David Grisman have provided a context for this kind of acoustic music and Tony Rice has taken it to the next logical step," writes Jon Sievert. After a four-year stint in the David Grisman Quintet, Rice formed the Tony Rice Unit and released Acoustics in 1979. Like Grisman, he surrounded himself with the best acoustic musicians including Sam Bush and Mike Marshall. Emphasis throughout the album is placed on instrumental dexterity, with musicians given the chance to build and develop their leads at length. Acoustics and later albums like 1982's Backwaters give notice that acoustic musicians, like jazz musicians, possess the skills required to create spontaneous and vital music. Many acoustic musicians like Darol Anger and Mike Marshall have shown a willingness to play in multiple settings as opposed to being associated with one band. From Psychograss to Montreux mandolinist/guitarist Marshall and violinist Anger have teamed up to stretch the boundaries of acoustic jazz. The material for Psychograss' Like Minds ranged from the traditional-based "Jeremy Reel" to the acoustic jam-fest of Jimi Hendrix' "Third Stone From the Sun," while the Anger/Marshall Band created a spacier, modern jazz sound for 1999's Jam. Anger and Marshall have also been central to exploring classical and world music possibilities with individual projects like the Modern Mandolin Quartet and the Turtle Island String Quartet. While the banjo failed to play a major role in the early development of acoustic jazz, Bèla Fleck, Tony Trischka, and Alison Brown would make their presence known on a number of solo and group projects. Fleck performed for years with the New Grass Revival before forming the adventurous jazz-oriented Flecktones. Béla Fleck and the Flecktones have shown a willingness to throw keyboards and synthesizer-oriented instruments into a mix they call blu-bop. Trischka, once Fleck's banjo teacher, has recorded solo as well as with Psychograss. The Tony Trischka Band's Bend added electric guitar and saxophone to create a sound that covered everything from rock & roll to jazz. Harvard graduate Alison Brown got her start playing banjo with Alison Krauss before adding nylon strings to create a more classically tinged banjo on 1998's solo project, Out of the Blue. Brown also formed Compass Records where other acoustic jazz bands like New Grange have recorded. Acoustic jazz also includes a number of prominent players often associated with other forms of music. Dobroist Jerry Douglas made the eclectic Restless on the Farm in 1998 and Skip, Hop & Wobble with Russ Barenberg and Edgar Meyer in 1993. Guitarist David Grier played on Psychograss' Like Minds and recorded the diverse Panorama in 1997. The David Grisman Quintet continues to tour and the Tony Rice Unit will release Unit of Measure in 2000, its first album since 1982. Whether called dawg, jazzgrass, or spacegrass, this vital acoustic music continues to grow in multiple directions and show signs of vigorous health after its first 25 years.