Steve Smith(Desert Night 343)
Desert Night Music
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
Acoustic instrumental music seems to come in at least two strains. One strain emphasizes musicians trading lengthy solos, while the other presents the overall sound of the instruments working together. In the first school you would find musicians such as Tony Rice, David Grisman, and David Grier; in the second, you'd find Robin Bullock and Beppe Gambetta. Generally speaking, the first school relies on musical styles ranging from progressive bluegrass to post-bop jazz, while the second, ranges from old time ensembles to classical. To try to understand a musician from one school by the rules of the other is to misunderstand that musician.
Steve Smith, on his latest recording Desert Night, clearly falls into the second school. The individual songs might be better described as compositions, carefully arranged to produce a total effect. Smith has written, arranged, and performed most of the instrumental work on Desert Night. Many tracks include Smith playing multiple instruments to create a rich acoustic texture.
Smith's compositions are soothing while remaining engaging. On songs like Traveler's Lament/ Mr. Jefferson's Oak and Colorado Farewell, Smith adapts different pacing within the structure, playing with both the mood and coloring of the song. On the latter song Smith weaves a multitude of changes that build and subside seamlessly throughout its seven-minute length. The Café Waltz successfully combines lead melodies on mandolins with cello and bass accompaniment, providing an evocative atmosphere.
The success of all of these songs is in the wonderful arrangements that allow multiple instruments, including guitar, mandolin, mandola, and mandocello to compliment each other with melodies and counter melodies. Several players accompany Smith with a plethora of instruments including cello, shekeree, double bass, and troubador harp. The result is a fullness of sound that creates an acoustic feast (this disc sounds really nice on headphones).
The styles of the music range from the "fake Baroque" of Allemande in E Minor to traditional romps like, Bacon and Bread. On the former, the mandolin plays lead and the mandocello adds a running bass line to create an amazingly harpsichord-like Bach piece. On Bacon and Bread Smith's guitar work resembles Norman Blake's, capturing a blend of old time guitar and mandolin. One song, The Grackle and the Hamster, deviates from the others by including a rollicking guitar lead, showing that Smith could easily trade leads with the best of today's acoustic guitar players.
A discussion of Desert Night would not be complete without mentioning Smith's love of vintage instruments. These include a 1924 F-5 mandolin and a 1912 K-2 mandocello. Like David Grisman in his "Tone Poems" series (where different vintage instruments were used for each track), Smith shows a deep appreciation for these instruments and the sounds they can produce in the right hands. This appreciation is evident throughout Desert Night. It is a carefully constructed album, both enjoyable and engaging.
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Edited by Roberta B. Schwartz