Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Chris Biesterfeldt: Urban Mandolin

By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Urban Mandolin

Chris Biesterfeldt isn’t a household name in the big world of music, but he is well known in New York City, and particularly on Broadway. He has worked in musical groups that support shows, on and off that famous street, and with the small jazz combos that flourish in the area. He’s best known as a guitarist, but for this album his “horn” is the mandolin, a higher-toned relative of the lute family. The musical format is a trio, with the mandolin replacing the usual guitar or piano. 

The mandolin dates back hundreds of years, and recently has been used extensively in country/western and rock groups, but almost never in jazz. Its tone isn’t as sweet or “full” as that obtained from a guitar; that’s the first thing you’ll notice when listening to this album. The mandolin is plucked or strummed, with a resulting volume that is softer than a guitar. 

Biesterfeldt’s instrument isn’t amplified ... nor, for that matter, is the accompanying bass.

Adam Armstrong is the bassist in question; Eric Halvorson handles drums. Their support of Biesterfeldt is masterful. This trio doesn’t come across as three guys who sit down and jam; every one of these 16 tracks is beautifully arranged. The melodic lines are delivered in unison, with the emphasis and excursions from the basic melody done precisely and meticulously. Since most of the tunes are mid- to up-tempo, the result is stunning. 

Armstrong’s bass lines often are exact duplicates of those on the mandolin: no mean feat on compositions such as Dizzy Gillespie’s “Bebop,” as just one example. 

Many of the tunes are composed by jazz artists; a few are standards; several were written by guitarists; and the rest are familiar R&B oldies. Regardless of origin, they’re all terrific.

But this album’s key attraction is the fact that these musicians are having fun, and it shows. I don’t know whether Biesterfeldt even attempted to get a major label to handle the resulting album, but — fortunately — he was happy enough to produce it himself. 

I love seeing — and listening to — folks who have a ball performing together. You just can’t beat the energy. 

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