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June 5, 2008 | What makes a jazz mandolin?
A recent topic of discussion has been the notion of the specifics of a 'Jazz' mandolin, the instrument itself. What has been eye-opening is how varied the preconceptions are. We maintain the basic components are linear, melodic strength, rich and full but not something bright and penetrating enough to kill banjos.
We were surprised to find a school of thought that dry percussiveness was something desired in accompaniment, punchy, jangley chords, but that's such a minor role in the mandolin's potential in the jazz arena. In soloing, you absolutely have to have a sustained sound that propels line, bleeds notes into each other. Tremolo is certainly a matter of personal taste, but around here we plays a less predominant role in driving line; it's far more important for string and fingers to be able effectively keep the tone active.
We can't deny this is a complex animal. It's the metaphorical blind men's elephant. You know the story, the three blind men describing their individual tactile experience with a huge pachyderm, one observes a long thin snakelike feature (tail), one describes the endless breadth and width (abodomen), and yet another is infatuated by the floppy fleshiness (ears); all are basing opinions on a small part of a larger whole.
Crispness is great for comping, but accompanying is not the tiny mandolin's greatest strength. Closed fingered sustain is absolutely critical in tackling music that wanders through rapid chromatic tonal center changes, so you need an instrument with wood that vibrates a long time when open strings are not a regular participant in sonic production.
It's hard to describe four-dimensional qualities with three-dimensional words, but describing the attack/sustain/decay chain of sound, many overlook that middle part as time develops the sound. Throw in the elements of timber, brightness vs. darkness, and it gets even more complex. While we don't advocate "darkness" necessarily, you certainly need more fundamental expressed in the string, and that makes penetrating brightness less a priority. If nothing else, a present "twangy" quality is the last thing you'd want to produce.
Some would argue it's all in the players' fingers. Yes, this is true to a certain extent, but you can't have a carpenter building a house with a painter's brush, and you can't do brain surgery with a lumberjack's ax. Certain tools are prerequisite for the job at hand, even though these tools can be used in other arenas.
Extra Credit: Re-read Mandolinsessions articles on tone:
Thinking Good Tone Part 1: What the Pros say about Good Tone.
Thinking Good Tone Part 2: What the Pros say about Good Tone.
Posted by Ted at June 5, 2008 7:54 AM
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