Not All Who Wander Are Lost
Sugar Hill Records
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
"Prestidigitation: manual skill and dexterity in the execution of tricks; sleight of hand"
The word came to mind immediately the first time I heard the opening of Chris Thileıs latest solo effort Not All Who Wander Are Lost. But prestidigitation has a connotation of trickery, and nothing that Chris Thile does on this album can be considered such. He comes by his skill and speed on the mandolin through hard work and joy of creating music, and his joyfulness is amply communicated on the CD. So I prefer to think of prestidigitaion, at least as far as it applies to Chris Thile, in an older and deconstructed sense: from the latin "preste" meaning nimble and "digitus" meaning finger. Thus for Thile I choose prestidigitaion to mean simply the quality of having nimble fingers.
Thile has assembled an all-star cast to assist him in his latest solo effort. Stuart Duncan and Sarah Watkins (fiddle), Bela Fleck (banjo), Jerry Douglas (Dobro), Edgar Meyer and Byron House (bass), Bryan Sutton and Sean Watkins (guitar) and Jeff Coffin (saxophone). Yes, saxophone. Prestidigitator Thileıs tunes all deserve full description and examination, but for the purposes of an album review that would perhaps be overindulgent on my part, and could possibly ruin the musical surprises that await the listener who opens Not All Who Wander Are Lost for the first time. So instead of highlighting each tune I will pick a few of my favorites.
Song for a Young Queen opens the CD with an infectious, fleet fingered melody. Itıs a piece that seems to flow around a few different tonal centers without actually touching them. The three different sections are free to flow one into another without needing an obvious transition.
Thile calls Wolfcreek Pass a bluegrass piece, but itıs definitely bluegrass as Thile sees it: with traditional tones and instrumentation but more musically complex. Even in bluegrass Thile likes to challenge himself. The tempo is quick but relaxed and the speedier runs are supported by minimalist bass and guitar rhythm work. That support ends up creating a counterpoint that actually adds more movement and tension to the piece. Given the fact that most Bluegrass tunes of this nature would call for backup as speedy as the lead/melody, itıs an improvement to the genre, and one I hope catches on with more Bluegrassers.
In the liner notes, Thile says of the tune Club G.R.O.S.S., "The melody is a result of an experiment that consisted of using the notes under and over the ones I actually liked. Possibly that wasnıt a smart idea, but we sure had fun!" All I can say is it worked for me. The tune is a trio that includes Edgar Meyer and saxophonist Jeff Coffin, and it pushes the boundaries of what most folks might consider music appropriate for mandolin. Sure, David Grisman can swing and make it sound right, but here Thile, the prestidigitator, delves into a little Bop. I consider it a highlight of the CD and one of the reasons that the album stays dynamic, interesting, and surprising.
Ever the baseball fan (his first two solo albums are called Leading Off and Stealing Second, respectively), Thile creates a tribute to his great, great, great uncle Sam Thompson, a .400 hitter whoıs plaque resides in the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York. Big Sam Thompson, essentially a Celtic flair, starts with an aire and closes with a reel. It is an appropriate and wonderful tribute to an ancestor of whom Thile is rightfully proud. (Ted William's was the last batter to average .400 for a season, and no one wrote a Celtic piece for him!). Big Sam Thompson is also the piece that unites Thile with his fellow Nickel Creek members. But the listener doesnıt get the sense that this is "the Nickel Creek song" of Not All Who Wander Are Lost. "Big Sam Thompson" slides right into place among the different forms with which Thile is experimenting.
The CD package, like the music, is very personal to Thile with the exception of the outer cardboard cover, a photograph of Thile on a street. The CD booklet cover (front and back) is a large doodle, a sort of linear wandering to complement the title. Inside the booklet are photographs of the arranging and recording sessions on which Thile has hand written notes about the origin or the direction of the piece for which the picture was taken. Thile has also written a fine introduction to the album which is well worth reading if you are interested in understanding how and why Not All Who Wander Are Lost was created.
All in all Not All Who Wander Are Lost is a wonderful CD. It is a treat for the ears and an insight into the musical mind of a great talent. If you like acoustic music that takes chances with genres and styles, Chris Thileıs latest solo effort is well worth your attention.