Mike Marshall Bares His Soul
By Darol Anger
Michael James Marshall, one of the top mandolinists in the world, greatest virtuoso of the mandocello, master of all fretted instruments, founder of the world's premier mandolin quartet, mandolinist/guitarist for the David Grisman Quartet, Edgar Meyer, Joshua Bell, Bela Fleck and countless sessions, Florida State Champion Fiddler Emeritus, acclaimed producer, composer and expert on international string band styles, is peering at a dead fish.
"Do you think I should put the limes AND the basil in if I stuff the fennel in this salmon? And I'm thinking if I wrap the whole thing in fig leaves, it might take too long to smoke it . . ." Any advice that any of us party-goers could give is considered carefully and then discarded in favor of maximum stimulation, resulting in culinary ecstasy an hour later -- but, only after we've consumed the gin-marinated, seasoned, grilled lamb and beef -- not to mention the pasta, red pepper and bean fantasia. We, in this case, being 30 or 40 of Mike and his wife, Kaila's, closest friends.
Mike Marshall is the only guy anyone knows who reads cookbooks on the plane for entertainment -- when he's not reading oenological treatises (all about wine, to us plebes). Astrologers might explain this as typical Cancer-sign behavior, puttering around home and hearth endlessly.
But, no star chart can explain Mike's stupefying talent for playing any number of stringed instruments better than 99.999 percent of the population and his voracious interest in just about every kind of music and the ability to play it.
Mike was born into a family which cares about food. "I'd say this whole cooking thing started when I moved away from home. If I was going to have food like I was eating at home, I'd either have to go to very expensive restaurants or learn to make it myself.
"On top of that, once we started touring in Italy and France, the ante just kept getting raised, and living in the Bay Area, it's all anybody thinks about anyway!"
Emigrating from the Italian-settled area of Pennsylvania dubbed "Pencil-tucky" when Mike was four, the family headed for central Florida, looking for better opportunity and a respite from the cold, northern weather. Mike's father found it in Lakeland, a quiet backwater east of Tampa Bay, not too far from Kissimmee, the home of famed fiddler Vassar Clements.
Mike was the second youngest of six children, who arrived in two waves. "Being second to last seems like a pretty good place to be, because all the wars had been fought, and I could kind of slide through. In my family, there weren't a whole lot of musicians, but there were enough so that it seemed normal.
"A couple of my uncles sang and played guitar -- real crooners. And apparently my grandfather on my father's side played the mandolin . . . Albert Mocciarrello. That mandolin is still floating around the family somewhere."
Mike's father found work as a contractor on fire-damaged homes. "In fact, when Dad realized I was serious about music, he told me, 'You better get really good at that mandolin of yours, unless you want to do this for the rest of your life' -- putting roofs of houses in Florida in the middle of the summer! It really got me motivated."
Mike's parents started him studying music "to keep him out of trouble." Mike: "I was pretty hyperactive, and they wanted me out of the house, but supervised." Great good luck smiled on him, as he discovered the studio of dedicated music teacher Jim Hilligoss, who ran a music school out of a storefront in Lakeland.
"Jim was really great. He kinda started me over on guitar, and got me into the mandolin later.
He just made sure I was reading correctly and holding the instruments right, and he made us study all different kinds of good music. He also organized all of his better students into bluegrass bands."
Cut to home movies of Mike and his teenage friends touring around in parents' Winnebagos, playing as the "kid band" at traditional bluegrass festivals all over the Southeast. The Sunshine Bluegrass Boys made two records, in demand by collectors, or would be if anyone knew about them! Mike would like to burn them all.
"We cut Fox On The Run on both records. That's all I need to say."
Already the best musician in the area, Mike had vaguely moved out, eating at his folks' house but living and working in an outbuilding on the edge of his family's property, running Mike Marshall's Musical Instruction And Pickin' Parlor. Doing just fine, winning fiddle contests, performing all over the tri-state area.
"Artie Traum, the guitarist, came and played this little club in Lakeland, must have been around 1976. And he said that David [Grisman] had started a mandolin magazine. I'd already heard through the grapevine that Tony Rice, who I'd gotten to jam with at a festival, had moved out there, so I knew something was up, if 'T' had left the New South, which was the greatest band at that time.
"Anyway, Artie even gave me David's home number, and the magazine address. So I probably just sent David a tape of myself playing and a tune for the Mandolin World News -- it was an original called Blue Imp Blues, named after my car. It was that big Impala. And so when that first David Grisman Quintet (DGQ) record came out, that just took the top of my head right off. It seemed to leapfrog over so much stuff. You guys had obviously put in some time on that music.
"I'd already been a fan of Sam Bush for years and patterned my playing after his, and the DGQ just put this whole new spin into this acoustic music thing that had been brewing. I went out there to visit as soon as I could."
The decision to hire Marshall into the DGQ took all of four hours. Mike showed up at a difficult time, like an angel sent from String Band Heaven, with fresh attitude, joy and unbelievable skills. Tony Rice dubbed him "Gator Bait," after a TV show character, and put him up until Mike found a place with a fellow Florida emigrant in the East Bay.
"I just remember it being the greatest feeling I'd ever felt in my life. Just to play with you guys; Tony's rhythm, the concept, the tunes, the whole thing . . . it was just, 'Aauugh! At last!' And then the next week I was in the studio with them and Stephane Grappelli . . . for a 19-year-old kid, how do you begin to describe it? It's taken me years to digest it all."
The DGQ was in flux, and Mike's presence made some experiments possible. David Grisman had begun his fruitful association with Stephane Grappelli. Both this writer and Tony Rice hired Mike to play on their solo records while Grisman worked on the film King Of The Gypsies with Stephane.
Shortly thereafter, Mark O'Connor replaced Tony for a major DGQ tour with Grappelli, in which Mike participated. Afterwards, the DGQ settled into a unit with O'Connor, Marshall, Anger, and bassist Rob Wasserman supporting the Dawg.
"I was sort of the utility infielder, pinch-hitter, plumber guy. I'd just play any instrument that was needed, whether it was mandolin, mandocello, fiddle, guitar. That was maybe the most competitive that band ever felt, maybe because everyone could play so many different things so well."
When O'Connor left the DGQ, such was David's confidence in Mike's ability to play anything on any instrument that Mike was instantly reconfigured as the DGQ's guitarist, successfully filling the shoes of Tony and Mark until early 1984.
"Luckily I already knew all the tunes and arrangements! That was pretty intense though to relearn all that stuff in a couple of weeks . . . that first gig was very intense. That's one of the great things about David, he's really willing to work with guys who maybe aren't there yet, but he's capable of seeing all this potential. He has the patience to give people a shot, if they have the innate ability and are extremely enthusiastic about his music . . . which I was, especially after we realized there was so much more space to play in with only four guys."
As the community of progressive string musicians in the Bay Area grew and developed, more opportunities presented themselves. Mike was also playing with Tony Rice, Darol Anger and Todd Phillips in a semi-formal unit called Ook N' M, a sort of onomatopoetic for the outrageous rhythmic chances the band took.
Mike and this writer helped develop a group called Saheeb, with pianist Barbara Higbie and jazz violinist David Balakrishnan, which served as a sort of idea lab and seeded both Mike's first solo record, Gator Strut, and the Montreux Band, which recorded successfully for Windham Hill Records for four years.
"Saheeb was real important because we were really studying bebop and modern jazz styles. We didn't play much original material except for Dave's music, which was really harmonically challenging, like Horace Silver's stuff.
"Then we had this chance to do these Windham Hill projects, and the band changed, of course. There are moments in the music business that are . . . how can I say this . . . enabling. That was one of them. You've got to hand it to Will [Ackerman] and Anne [Robinson], the CEOs of Windham Hill]; they were really smart, and really allowed us all the creative freedom we needed, at least at first, when they had control.
"Will could really see a little bit into the future, really see around the corner of the tree, so to speak. I always saw the music we were making at that time as representing this one facet, an important one, but just one face of the multi-faceted creature that is our music."
After a few years of travelling and working in these combinations, the Montreux band ended, for various personal and professional reasons. Mike met an excellent violinist and composer, Kaila Flexer, and eventually married her. They have so far produced two recordings of her compositions for Compass Records, with her band, Next Village. Their new daughter, Lucy, has put some of Kaila's projects on hold.
"My mother always said I'd never be happy 'til I got with another musician, which of course, early on, I thought was absurd; I thought that if she was better than me, that would be torturous, and if I was better than her, that would be torturous too! (laughing)
"But she was probably right, because it's really great when somebody that close really understands what it is you're trying to accomplish. And understands how what seems like a half hour in the studio can turn into six hours, and stuff like that. Kaila really figured that out when we made her first record."
After Montreux disbanded, Mike organized a historic project: the Modern Mandolin Quartet, a string quartet with mandolins, mandola, and mandocello. Mike had already worked with multiple mandolins with Grisman, and on his album, Gator Strut, playing all the parts on Ravel and John Lennon pieces.
But here, he organized other serious classical players to read and adapt major works of the European canon, on modern instruments, at a level that nobody had done before. This group made inroads that no other mandolin quartet has been able to make. Their six recordings on Windham Hill are a stunning and hypnotic document of what is possible for the mandolin family. They should be essential listening for anyone interested in the mandolin, especially the group's treatment of "modern" composers such as Stravinsky, Debussy, and Bartok.
"It was a great experience to get inside the heads of all those great composers. We were adapting not only string quartet music but piano and orchestra pieces, and we really had to take the music apart and figure out what were the important elements that we should preserve, how to divide up the voices, and so on.
"Learning to dissect all this great music, inventing ways to make it work on those instruments, was a real challenge. Because there really is no established tradition of mando-quartet playing, so we hadto create a language and invent a lot of techniques to bring the music out. Good for your sight-reading, too!"
During and after the MMQ days, Mike also installed a small, but powerful, digital recording studio in and around his house, doing much of the work himself, using construction skills he learned salvaging houses with his father. He wound up producing and playing on many projects of musicians such as Alison Brown, Laurie Lewis, Tony Furtado, Tony Elman, and others, in Gatorland, his personal electronic domain.
"Right after the Montreux Band stopped touring, I had a lot of time on my hands and a lot of knowledge from making all those other records, and not a lot of employment! So I got into it, but I finally realized it took up so much time, and I wasn't getting to do my own music that much. So I cut way back to only projects that I feel I can really grow and learn something on."
When one says that Mike became interested in Choro music, the string band music of Brazil, the word "interested" takes on new baggage: Fascinated, obsessed, whatever. David Lindley says that when some musicians try to learn a new instrument, they "eat" it; playing 18 hours a day for weeks at a time, wiping blood off the strings or keys.
This is an accurate comparison to Mike's occupation; He "ate" choros for about three years. "You know, being involved in improvising music for as long as we have, and then getting into the classical music with the MMQ, the choros seemed to represent a great combination of it all.
"They have these beautiful structures; they're complicated melodies, most with an AA, BB, A, CC, A form -- it's like Ragtime music -- and by the time you're done with the whole tune, you feel completely satisfied.
"You don't need to go back and blow over the changes, or whatever. They're just these beautiful musical gems, complete in every way. And the fact that so many of them were written on the mandolin, means that they lay really beautifully under the fingers.
"Trying to play jazz on the mandolin, sometimes you say, hey, wait a second, this doesn't fit the way it probably does for a saxophone player. Whereas the choros, they feel good, almost like a fiddle tune, except they have the more complex harmony and structure like jazz and or classical melodies. I thought it would be good for my writing, too; if you 'are what you eat'!
And it was natural for me. Sometimes if you play music from other cultures, you feel like, 'Oh God; I'll have to go live in this country for years to really get it'. But I didn't feel that way about Brazilian music, something about the groove just felt natural. Maybe because all the elements of American music are there: the African drumming, the western European harmonic trip . . . all the same ingredients, just slightly different amounts of each."
Mike's CD Brazil, an album of Brazilian duets with players such as Andy Narell and Edgar Meyer, came out on Earthbeat! in 1995 and is still available. His choro band, Choro Famoso, is halfway through a recording project.
Mike also has seen a long-time relationship with Edgar Meyer bear fruit, in the form of collaborations with Meyer and Bela Fleck, (Uncommon Ritual, Sony Classics) and Mike's recordings with the virtuoso bassist for his own recording, Brazil.
"It's a kick in the pants, playing with Edgar. He's just got such unbelievably high standards, and beautiful attention to detail. He's just really honest and straight ahead, and committed to finding how to make things work musically. It's great to be around somebody who's pushing himself that hard."
And in 1999, an extremely rewarding tour and recording (Short Trip Home, Sony Classics) led by Meyer with the great classical violinist Joshua Bell and Sam Bush, the biggest of Mike's early mandolin heroes.
"I finally got to play with Sam for a while! It was incredible; I never laughed so much in my life. And I got to come to grips with the realization that what Sam does on his instrument, nobody could ever do -- even though he's probably one of the two most copied mandolinists in the world.
"It's his spirit that drives that back-beat. You can pick up his mandolin and try to play that thing, and you realize even more that that's not what it's about. It's the energy he has for life, it just comes blazing through every note, every chop. A powerful 'mutha', that Sammy."
Mike's ongoing partnership with the "profoundly weird" fiddler Darol Anger, this writer, has taken us all over the world together, and produced some truly classic recordings. Their latest project is the aptly named Darol Anger/Mike Marshall Band.
"We thought we'd try something really radical and use our own names. for a change -- see if it worked." The group features, oddly enough, Mike and Darol, with a couple of phenomenally hot younger players: Derek Jones on electric and acoustic bass, and Aaron Johnston on drums.
"Darol and I have been playing together so long that we can do just about anything musically, on the spur of the moment. These guys are good enough to not only be right there, but they can kick our butts musically too, and get us to new places we'd never have gone otherwise. Plus, they're great guys, and really fun to be with."
The group has two recordings on Compass Records. The first, JAM, is a grab bag of sometimes overwhelmingly virtuosic playing on tunes by Hendrix, J.S. Bach, Brazilian mandolin pioneer Jacob Do Bandolim, and Mike and Darol's originals. Also on the disc are several completely improvised pieces by the band, including the very first time the group ever played together.
"We just started playing in the studio . . . I wanted to get all these guys together and see what would happen. After the first session, we all knew we had to go be a band." The second CD, Brand New Can, released in August 2000, is a finely crafted lineup of originals, with hot playing throughout, and guest appearances by fellow Newgrange member Alison Brown on banjo and frequent collaborator John R. Burr, keyboardist for the Alison Brown Quartet.
Both recordings highlight Mike's fiery and unsurpassed mandolin and mandocello playing, along with a big helping of his guitar work, and some self-invented instruments such as the fretless "ouditar", which Mike had made from a Puerto Rican Quattro.
Mike's string decision was influenced by Sam Bush. "I guess they're gonna wanna know, huh? I went back to Mon-el, or whatever it is. They're stainless steel D'Addarios, they don't make 'em with loop ends, I have to cut the balls out of 'em.
"They're .42, .26. I just went back to .15 and .11. For the last two years I was using .16 and .115, but I just decided to lighten up in the past couple of weeks. They're not as bright when you first put 'em on, but I can get through a couple of shows with them, whereas with the phosphor bronze, I was killing 'em after half a show."
How does he go about switching between mandolin and guitar?" Well, the mandolin is easier, because it's symmetrical tuning. The guitar has that dadgum B-string.
"I always say that with the mandolin, you don't really have to know what string you're on, whereas with the guitar, you do have to be aware because of that third. I also think of the guitar as kind of a piano, for writing, since you have so many more options for writing chords and seeing the wider harmonic picture. So it's good to have both.
"Also, the mandocello is yet another weird thing because you can't play the same melodic stuff as you would on mandolin. People pick that up and they immediately try to get a Bill Monroe chop G-chord, and they say, 'Oh, this is really hard!' . . . but, you just don't play it that way. You play two notes on the mandocello and it sounds like a whole orchestra. You can go with two fingers right across the fingerboard."
Holding the pick . . . "David sure opened my head up, he's such a tone-meister. I guess the biggest thing that I learned from him was that you have to have the sound in your head, that you're trying to get out. And, you just have to do everything, anything you can, to achieve it. If it means standing on your head...! you should do that. And that goes for the right hand, pick holding. Whatever. Just do everything you can to get the sound out."
The Marshall tremolo is one of the most colorful, dynamic and flexible of any mandolinist. "The pick must go up and down, just remember that up is harder than down, because you're fighting gravity. Try speeding up very slowly from even eighth notes until it gradually becomes tremolo.
"Then try varying the tension on your pick. Grip it as loosely as possible, 'til it falls out of your fingers, then pick it up and gradually add tension, gripping harder and harder, The increased pressure alone should make the sound louder. Try not to get locked into just a buzz."
Any common problems he sees in young players? "Yeah . . . as simple as it sounds, people often have a problem with the down-up, back and forth thing. Just keeping it lined up rhythmically with the music.
"Generally, the downbeat should be a down-pick and the upbeat should be an up-pick. Often people will get turned around in the middle of a phrase. If they go and look at one little part of the problem phrase, usually just one little stroke, they'll usually be able to take care of the entire passage.
"Also the alignment in time of the left and right hand. They can get slightly out of synch. So the left hand is fretting either behind or ahead of the right hand. Tony Rice had a lot to say about that, I remember early on him talking about this, and I thought it was real enlightening."
Who does he like on mandolin? "Well, David and Sam, obviously. But boy, Chris Thile is sure the great hope for our instrument. I wish there were another dozen players like him out there. I would have thought by now there would have been. Come on, all you youngsters, where are you? Just lower the action, put lighter strings on. I wanna hear ALL the notes! (laughter)
"Um, learn to read music. That's still the great dividing line. It can just open up mandolin players' heads to all this different music that's otherwise unavailable. It's not that hard."
Mike's list of other projects is almost too numerous to cover here, but includes another performing duo with steel pan virtuoso Andy Narell, the popular "chambergrass" group Newgrange, (with Tim O'Brien, pianist Phil Aaberg, Alison Brown, Anger, and Todd Phillips) and a new "one-off" project band called "Comotion", which features Marshall with the legendary oboist/reed-man Paul, Anger again, and instigator Michael Kang of the String Cheese Incident, with a rhythm section made up of members of Leftover Salmon and the Anger/Marshall band.
What are his ambitions now? "I still want to record all the Bach solo violin Sonatas and Partitas with mandolin. And I just ordered a mandolin from Alberto Paredes in Columbia.
"It's a modified Portugese style, with a flat face and back, long and wide neck, and a real deep body made out of rosewood, slightly 'classical-esque' sound. He built the one for Cristobal Soto, the Venezuelan mandolinist, who I organized a workshop with out here in the Bay area last year. He's one of my favorite musicians down there.
There's this project we're talking about with Tony Rice, Todd Phillips and Darol. And I have a thing with Kaila, we're about halfway through it, duets with fiddle and whatever I feel like playing. Chris Thile and I are making noises about a duet project. There's another trip to Brazil in the works."
How does music integrate into your life, or life in general? "I wish it was more integrated, generally speaking, into everyone's day-to-day lives. You know, in a way, recorded music and radio and stuff have diminished the concept of people actually getting together to play music.
"I think we've lost something there, in society in general. I'd like to get back to more of that, especially having a kid now, really drives that one home. I remember growing up in the south where you had these families of musicians; nobody could remember when they started learning to play music; they just did it, every day, like eating together.
"So that would be nice, to see more of that. Now, it seems like it becomes a business too quickly. Guys learn three chords; they think they need a record deal, a manager, and go out and tour.
"And in a way, they do, if they're going to be musicians. Unfortunately, capitalism sorta forces you to earn while you learn. It kinda works. I guess.
"I just wish there was a way to really study these folk-based art forms and integrate it with theory and technique the way classical music and jazz have."