Andrew Collins Trio – And It Was Good
Independent – 3 April 2017
Toronto mandolin maestro Andrew Collins and his trio partners, multi-instrumentalist Mike Mezzatesta (mandolin, guitar, fiddle) and James McEleney (double bass, mandocello) have recorded an album here which defies categorisation but which draws on a myriad of classical and folk influences, and it’s chock-a-block with instrumental virtuosity. Chambergrass is a label which has been used to describe artists with similar genre-hopping tendencies and top notch musicianship, including The Bee-Eaters from California and the mighty Punch Brothers. The fact that And It Was Good is a completely instrumental release also draws me towards the chambergrass comparison – to include no vocals at all is quite unusual although not unknown, especially in the related category of old-time music, where tunes are more common than songs in the live music tradition. Even here, most artists try to leaven their recorded music with a few songs. Andrew Collins has been acclaimed on the Canadian acoustic scene for many years, including for his stint with the Foggy Hogtown Boys, and although And It Was Good was only recently released in the UK, it’s already won Instrumental Album of the Year in the 2016 Canadian Folk Music Awards.
From the titles of the pieces here, which echo the text of the story of Genesis (Firmaments/Fish & Fowl/Everything That Creeps and so on) this seems to be a concept album around the theme of the creation of the Earth. I do hope that doesn’t point to Andrew Collins being a “creationist” who rejects the theory of evolution…(he confirmed it most definitely doesn’t), clearly it’s the poetic language that appeals to him (all the pieces were composed and arranged by Collins). Although that shouldn’t colour our opinion of his art. I’m going to take it as a celebration of our beautiful planet and all the riches of heaven and earth which we take for granted. I must admit I found this review quite difficult to write due to the nature and structure of the music…it can be harder to get a handle on a series of instrumentals – especially when they are not short, catchy “tunes” but far more involved, layered pieces. This music is definitely challenging but is of the highest quality. And of course, it makes the most sense when listened to in order, as a full album, in an old-fashioned way.
Light from the Darkness makes a dramatic start and its 7-plus minutes have at least three different themes corralled within. Based around two mandolins and double bass (much of it bowed), there are some extra touches from special guests the Phantasmagoria String Quartet at the start. Next up, Firmaments is more upbeat and fittingly, its central theme is rather twinkly, with guitar, mandola and mandocello being added into the mandolin/bass mix for a fuller sound. The string quartet joins in on Seed of its Own Kind with violin (or it could be viola) taking the lead and layers of mandolin, mandola, cello and bass building up to a slightly off-kilter ending. Stars, Sun & Moon kicks off with chiming mandolin, and quite quickly gets into a hectic and crazy ambience, before bowed bass and strings lead us to the close. Fish & Fowl has a definite seafaring theme and is a lovely set of tunes led by the versatile Collins and Mike Mezzatesta on twin fiddles. Everything That Creeps is led out by some striking double bass which is then joined by mandocello and mandolin alongside the quartet and is a fittingly quirky soundtrack to conjure up the various creepy-crawlies, insects and bugs suggested by the title. This segue ways into a tune which sounds much more like an old-time standard. Track (day) 7, Rest, is appropriately soothing with gorgeous mandolin from Collins before the whole collection is concluded by the title track And It Was Good. The Phantasmagoria String Quartet provides a driving background for lead breaks by mandolin, fiddle and guitar in a passage of music which owes much more to bluegrass tradition than much of the record.
I first happened upon Andrew Collins back in 2008 at my first visit to Sore Fingers, the extraordinary annual UK bluegrass camp. Andrew was teaching the mandolin class (who all seemed to love him) and I remember he also impressed me with his on-stage presence and musicianship. Back then I bought his Little Widgets CD which has remained a staple of my music collection since, even though that’s also purely instrumental! However, the tunes are definitely more accessible and I suppose more “bluegrassy”. What’s on offer on And It Was Good is certainly more demanding, and not an easy listen by any means. But it’s full of beauty, quirks and top notch musicianship. I’m sure it will reveal more and more of itself with repeated listens. This album is one for lovers of virtuoso playing, skilful composition and unconventional arrangements, especially mandolin aficionados.
Find out more at www.andrewcollinstrio.com