Piano trios playing jazz are a dime a dozen, guitar trios as well. Trios featuring the mandolin are rare, to say the least. The mandolin may make its way into a larger ensemble every so often, but even that isn’t a common occurrence. Rare, uncommon, perhaps even unique are the adjectives that best define Urban Mandolin, the new album from Chris Biesterfeldt. And while it might take a few hearings to get comfortable with the sound of a mandolin trio jazz album, Biesterfeldt and his crew, bassist Adam Armstrong and drummer Eric Halvorson are well worth the effort.
The album, which explores a wide musical range from bop to Bach and the Beach Boys, opens with two jazz classics—Dizzy Gillespie’s “Bebop” and Charlie Parker’s “Quasimodo.” Maybe because of the unusual instrumentation, maybe because of the reverberations of the dynamic sound of the iconic originals, the trio sounds a bit thin. The sound begins to grow with “Freedom Jazz Dance” as first the mandolin and then the bass improvise over the strong work of Halvorson. By the time the album’s fourth track, “Bach G-Minor Presto,” takes off, the trio has hit its stride. Normally I am disappointed with jazz transcriptions of classical music, but not in this case. The Bach is a showpiece for Biesterfeldt.
There are in total 16 tracks on the album. Pop music is represented by the sweetly melodic “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and a spiritual arrangement of the Tony Asher/Brian Wilson hit “God Only Knows,” making some arresting use of the cymbals. The mandolin seems to be a great fit for music as different as the Brazilian “Segura Ele” and the Jimmy Smith blues “Back at the Chicken Shack.”
Still, the bulk of the tunes comes from the American jazz songbook. There is another Smith composition, the rapid fire “Ready and Able,” Wayne Shorter’s “Witch Hunt,” Monk’s “Bye-Ya,” Pat Metheny’s “Bright Size Life,” and Randy Brecker’s “Some Skunk Funk.” They close with a fresh take on a Frank Zappa piece—“Rollo Interior.”
The variety of the material suggests that one of Biesterfeldt’s aims is to demonstrate the versatility of his instrument. If so, give him credit. Urban Mandolin makes an excellent case.