"Good improvisation communicates harmonic progression melodically. Effective melodies manipulate harmonic content through the use of guide tones and preparatory gravity notes, masterfully woven in systematic tension, release, and transparent harmonic definition."
One of our favorite builders to follow has been North Carolina transplant (Oregonian last time we reviewed his work) and wood magician, James Condino. His instruments transcend the architecturally squat functionality of a Frank Lloyd Wright house, leaping into the next dimension with the unconventional line and bold thrust of an I.M. Pei skyscraper. Swoops and cuts, holes where they shouldn't be but audaciously great tone coming out where it should, his instruments typically grab the ear as much as the eye.
We had the privilege of lap intimacy with a 2006 creation, his A6 which remains another excursion into his signature convention of subtle mandolin lunacy, a marvelous, daring 8-string mandolin. Immediately the twin offset, oversized holes made us chuckle like a school boy who just pulled off a successful prank. The adorning pickguard, made of Macassar ebony (that could almost pass for Indian rosewood) is either an exaggerated military salute or an oversized tilt-to-side ghetto ball cap, daring law enforcement to take its owner down to the station for questioning. In either case it's the builder who has the last laugh because the pickguard rests functionally and precisely at maximum playing potential, just where the right hand fingertips graze. (More about the matching tailpiece and headstock overlay later.)
We're told the rest of the materials include "straight up western Bigleaf maple all around" and then the aforementioned Macassar ebony trim. "Top is salvaged red spruce cut in 1903 and then used as a beam in a mill for 100 years," well-seasoned before the builder acquired it. The tailpiece is one of Dominic Orricos, highly modified in which about 2/3 of the mass was removed, and the tuning machines, "bare bones basic model by Nicoli Alessi."
Click all pictures for closeup view
An avid mountain climber and all around adventurer, James observes, "Back in my days when someone would fall into a glacial crevasse on my rope team or when I'd flip a boat in a giant rapid on a river in some third world jungle, or even farther back when I was in uniform and people were shooting and trying to blast my jet out of the air, I'd get stressed some days. When someone doesn't like my mandolin, it's okay, probably not a good fit for them; not very high on the [personal] stress scale. I build them in all sorts of shapes and colors for folks, often times for some pretty stubborn folks (mandolin guys can be that way--I'm one of 'em) in ways that they insist upon because they know everything about it from reading that internet forum, yet I know it isn't my first choice." This is what we love most about his work, his respect and vast knowledge of traditional mandolin builds, yet fearlessness in taking these designs to their next challenging level.
Outside of the pickguard, there is no greater courageous aesthetic statement than his headstock. The inflated swagger and weight of extended wood is offset by the holes, again his tiny signature ascending trinity of broadening circles mirrored on the sideports. Add mass, subtract mass, and the builder successful creates an embellishing salutation that retains a physical endpin-to-headstock balance.
Here's where the purist (and potential customer) might get a little testy, the clash of seven-layer cake Macassar and ruddy German chocolate cake maple; an aesthetic combination not for the meek, but deliciously adventurous for the mandolinist not afraid to live on the aesthetic edge. (Works on a paper plate at a church potluck; why not here?)
We confess a personal distaste for sideports in any mandolin. We feel it robs the instrument's ability to project the string fundamental, but the builder effectively arbitrates "the time tested reality for me is that they raise the fundamental of the box--just like when you enlarge the soundhole. That gives you more options for dynamic range and, in my opinion, is a bonus when ensemble playing, but also changes the voice. The port plugs allow you to tailor it to your preference and the 'tone of the week.' Like you mentioned, that instruments has a mix of ideas, but also has a very nice quality when you hit the right range."
As you'll observe from the pictures below, the instrument include three cork extended removable wood plugs to allow this kind of tonal variation, easily pinched into position. We pretty much kept them in the instrument all the time so as to project its awesome sound more forward.
On a more experimental note, James included a sound hole cover. Interesting varying the tone with different combinations of closed sideports and top hole. With a little imagination, one could alter the instrument's timbre (no pun intended). After all, Miles Davis made a mark in jazz history with his the harmon mute in his trumpet fifty years ago. In this case, it might not be as effective, is the tone is not as radically different. In the hands of a creative player, though, who knows?
A top down closer view of the bridge reveals the three-hole aesthetic, as well. You also get a closer look at the generous graining in the top, an eyeful of marvelous tonewood.
A better angle at the modified Orricos tailpiece; again, we are big fans of any kind of "quick change tailpiece, nothing to slide back in to place.
Click all pictures for closeup view
James considers this an "ensemble" instrument. We concur in that there is nothing harsh or in-your-face about its tone; it's very much a gets-along-with-others blending instrument. Still, we don't want to understate its amazing dynamic range. There's a huge variety of tone and volume packed in this astonishing instrument.
February 25, 2010 | Chord Combinations for the Lizard Ear
After 6-1/2 years of writing for Mel Bay's free online webzine, "Mandolin Sessions," we breached the borders of self-plagiarism. You write enough about a singular subject, you run the danger of repeating yourself. Site Author, Ted Eschliman was four days from turning in a recent article, only to find the article he'd written had already been written. Five years earlier; by him.
We're looking at novel approaches to the Jazz Mandology library, and the new one for April is an intriguing one, "Chord Combinations for the Lizard Ear." Biologists will tell you about the notion of the "Lizard Brain" (interesting topic--try Googling it...) There's nothing creative in this part of the brain, only a motor reaction to the environment, basic survival, sans calculation or creativity.
Sometimes, it's fun to just sit with the instrument and start fingering chords that sound good, just for the sake of uncovering sounds. No thinking, no analysis, no theory, just aural discovery. Just the lizard ear basking in the warm sunshine of glorious extended chords and sounds.
We've taken some of the staff chord favorites and put them in this upcoming article. If it goes over well, we may open up for the readership to contribute some faves.
Until then, checkout the 37 articles archived in our "Mandolin Sessions" page: Jazz Mandology
February 23, 2010 | Important 'Django in June' deadline!
Two quick Django in June updates that may be of interest to you... Considering joining in on the New England area Django Camp this year (June 15-20)? Please note that the early-bird registration rate expires at the end of February (that's like now!), at which point the cost begins to increase monthly. The objective is not to charge you more, rather to give you an incentive to let them know you are coming so they can be ready for you. Two options:
Or, send an informal email asking to be "penciled in" at the early-bird rate. You'll have another month (through March) to preregister and then they know you are likely attending.
Also, there is a new resource on the Django in June website that is available to all, but of particular interest to those attending Camp. Some of the artists on the D in J teaching staff this year are providing a short selection of audio with a written transcription for people to work on in the months leading up to Camp. Of course, there is a wonderful abundance of such instructional material available now, but how often do you have the opportunity to sit with the author and go over it in person? This will be a work in progress, adding these educational resources to djangoinjune.com over the next few months, so check back once in a while. This month entries, material from Joscho Stephan (for guitarists) and Tim Kliphuis (for violinists). You can find a link to them from the web page devoted to helping you Get Ready Musically.
February 21, 2010 | JBovier EMC series electric mandolin review
We've had the pleasure of taking turns with a gorgeous Vintage Cream EMC (Mandocaster style) electric mandolin in the JazzMando lab for over a month now, and it was time to put in down and put pen to paper to share our thoughts. The EMC and ELS (Electric Leo Smith) emandos are now available through the regular JBovier dealership channels in the Vintage Cream and Classic Sunburst finishes in a 4- and 5-string configuration.
While at Winter NAMM, we were able to also bring back on the plane, a delicious red EMC 5-string for some exhaustive research. (It's science, you know; tough job, but somebody has to do it...) Custom finishes like these are available through the JBovier custom shop if you don't mind waiting a few extra months for the color of your dreams. The JazzMando site administrator has personally acquired a Vintage Cream EMC-5 for himself, but you can read about the red one in the write-up.
Nice; check it out in our latest Builders of the 21st Century review.
February 19, 2010 | They're back! JM11 JazzMando strings
We are now back to shipping the widely popular JM11 and JM10B JazzMando flatwound mandolin strings, after an uncomfortable inventory drought. If you're a fan of a warmer, richer sound, rather than an obnoxious percussive "smack" out of your mandolin, these strings are for you.
The polished custom Flatwound Labellas have a much closer, tighter wrap which resists corrosion and wear from oxidation and player perspiration (similar to the world renown Thomastiks). The steel alloys lends a crisp, subtle "punch" for a sophisticated bell-like articulation. Player comfort from the smooth strings makes these feel as great as they sound!
Though initially designed for jazz, these will also work well for the classical, folk, and blues mandolinist. They aren't intended to compete with banjos in a loud acoustic brawl, but they will give you definition and a warm character for more intimate solo and small ensemble environments.
We are optimistic this fresh batch will be devoid of the intermittent D string flaw (string core that doesn't tune up to pitch) and we can offer you the maximum trouble-free string experience.
Price $16.95 each or $29.95 for two. We'll even throw in a JazzMando pick for you to try!
Mike writes us, "I'm looking for a good gypsy jazz mandolin book. I'm mainly interested in learning standard tunes (melody and progressions), not 'how to hold the pick' or 'Nuages' as played by Chris Thile. Probably get Dix Bruce's second book. Any suggestions?"
Both Dix's books are great for getting your toe into the water (see link below), and the accompaniment CD gives you the opportunity to "polish" in the privacy of your own home.
It's coming soon up in the Pacific Northwest, Wintergrass, February 25-28, Bellevue, WA. As expected, a promising lineup again this year of performances, workshops and vendors, including the exhibit of one of our favorite builders, Austin Clark. The popular festival attracts over 4000 people a day from 28 states and half a dozen foreign countries every year.
February 13, 2010 | Mike Marshall has now answered your questions
Take some time to read the latest in the artist interview series at the MandolinCafe website from one of the planet's greatest musicians, Mike Marshall. The talented multi-instrumentalist and his decades long pedigree of performing experiences is a great well to draw knowledge from, and this in-depth read gives you a small sample of what goes on in the brain of this immense genius.
We've had the pleasure of spending time with him in person, a pre-concert lunch on one occasion, a trip to the airport on another, and several supportive emails over the years. This guy is the real deal.
Sometimes we get pictures from our readers that are just too precious to keep to ourselves. This one international, from Andrieux with his lovely granddaughter, Lana, as he describes "from the deep south of France."
No caption necessary; a picture truly is worth a thousand words.
February 9, 2010 | Jason Anick Trio at the Stork Club in Boston
We're suckers for a good arrangement of a classic Beatles song. Throw in a good gypsy jazz trio format, and we're all ears. Jason Anick and friends do a nice job of this favorite, "You Never Give Me Your Money."
Once in a while it's nice to look back on the archives and see what seems to impact readers. One of the web stats that continues to go through the roof is our take on pick construction, an article from two years ago, "Top Picks." Seems mandolinists can't get enough on the subject.
"Picks are one of the least expensive ways you can change your sound. Every note you play starts with the pick, and your efforts to develop your own sound will always be contingent on its control and just how much you are 'one with the pick.'"
Read more thoughts on the impact of pick construction, weight, bevel, and rigidity have on the power of the pick.
February 5, 2010 | Fresh Material for the V7 Chord; Django's Castle
Mel Bay's February/March MandolinSessions columns are up, and this month's Jazz Mandology entry takes some of the material we've been introducing on the construction of the Augmented 11th (or Lydian Dominant) scale. We bring it home by putting into context with a classic Django Rheinhardt tune, "Django's Castle."
We hope this entices you into digging deeper into the sonic wealth of this sequence of notes. If you recall, we introduced a whole new way of getting friendly with this scale in our most recent installment, Augmented 11th FFcP in our FFcP Studies free PDF online downloads. Even if you don't want to mess with the theory, you can still appreciate the coolness of this lush vocabulary.
February 3, 2010 | Headway EDB1 Equalizer/Direct Box
We had the pleasure of auditioning a Headway EDB1 Direct box/equalizer this last weekend, and have to say are pretty impressed. Longtime mando-chum, Gordon Roberts who is also good friends with innovator John Littler from Oxfordshire, England (home of Headway Music Audio) is largely responsible for bringing the acoustic engineer genius's products to this side of the pond, was kind enough to get this into our studio (and later, stage) for some live, hands-on experience.
First, you can't let this weighty gadget's small profile distract you from thinking this is anything but a world-class piece of high tech electronics with enough switches and knobs to give you full intuitive control over studio or a live sound. What we found even more impressive was how little tweaking we needed. One might expect to really go to town on the five bands of EQ, and it almost confounded us that we could just plug this in flat and the initial sound needed virtually no knob adjustments. If you were in a acoustically gnarly hall or had a particularly frequency-fussy acoustic instrument, these may come into play, as well as the tunable notch filter, but we didn't even have a chance to push it in our audition. Almost disappointing simply having all those knobs flying at 12 o'clock...
It's an especially versatile piece; there is already rabid internet chatter amongst bass players, and it's already created a stir amongst touring UK string musicians faced with the challenge of acoustic purity in an amplified environment. It comes equipped with a three-way switch allowing use for violin, bass, and instruments in between such as guitar or zouk. There are two channels making it perfect for the mandolinist who might have a stereo blend of piezo and magnetic pick-up. We would have loved to try it on a Phoenix Jazz mandolin, for example. Speaking of pick-ups, there is also a switch for adapting and optimizing pickup various impedances, too.
Powering, it can run on batteries or an AC adapter wall-wart (included). It has Phantom power but it doesn't run on Phantom power, meaning it will power a mike that needs Phantom but you can't run the box using phantom from the PA. We are told the batteries last close to 50 hours (200 hours if you spring for lithiums if you can find them), and it has a low battery light that comes on when you are down to 5 hours or so of use giving plenty of warning, (a couple of gigs worth of power) before it completely dies on you.
The unit can be attached to a mic stand, mounted flat with the rubber feet, or clipped to a belt (although it might be a tad heavy for that). For advanced electronics, a balanced XLR direct out or stereo 1/4" outs, and a ground lift switch is included to eliminate potential ground hum. We also discovered to our embarrassment, the on/off power switch when our sound man was trying to identify a hum in the system; we can attest that the unit works much cleaner in the power "on" position!
So what are the plusses and minuses? We matched this up to the LR Baggs Venue which is comparable in price, and both put out incredibly clean, authentically acoustic sound. We like the built-in tuner feature of the Venue, but the EDB1 scores as far as the phantom power, absent in the Baggs, much to our chagrin. We do like the no-slip, lower profile of the Bags for stomping, but since you aren't going to position the EDB1 on the floor as your tuner, this becomes moot. Though we only tried this on one instrument we suspect the Headway also scores in versatility, with the ability to be used by a wide range of frequencies.
The Headway EDB1 is still gaining notoriety on American soil, but we suspect more are going to be won over by this British invasion, following on the heels of other popular headway products like the violin "Band" pick-up and a line of Shire King premier amplifiers. We were also pretty blown away by the mandolin pick-up John showed us at the 2010 Winter NAMM show, in our opinion the penultimate eltite mandolin pick-up for any persnickety string musician willing to put up with a fixed bridge.
We expect to see lot of discriminating domestic touring companies start to use the EDB1 once the word gets out!
We regret to bring news of a two week delay in shipments of JM11 JazzMando flatwound mandolin strings. We hope to be up and running with availability in mid February. We'll still take orders, but all shipments will be back-ordered and shipped immediately after arrival.
The JM11s continue to gain global popularity, noted for their warmth and clarity of sound, as well as their comfort and smooth feel. We trust the next batch will also be free of the intermittent defective D strings. If you experienced this or have purchased a set in the last year you haven't opened, be on the lookout for intonation problems. What happens is they go out of tune about a half step at the 12th fret. (No need to panic, as this is only about 1 in 50 strings.) Feel free to contact us immediately for replacements; the defect is obvious immediately when the string is first installed.