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'There's one thing called music'
Mandolin master Mike Marshall likes to mix things up
Mike Marshall and Chris Thile: Masters of mandolin

The underlying philosophy of the Savannah Music Festival is best exemplified by the appearance, nearly every year, of Mike Marshall. An envelope–pusher who’s been at the forefront of acoustic music for three decades, Marshall is a mandolin player whose music defies strict categorization. Because that’s the way he likes it.

A founder of the Modern Mandolin Quartet. and Montreux, and well–known for the innovative recordings he makes alongside violinist Darrol Anger, Marshall embraces elements of jazz, bluegrass, classical and world musics. And whatever else he discovers on his life’s journey.

And there you have the Savannah Music Festival, in a nutshell.

“I have to say, I think it’s the best festival going on in America today,” Marshall enthuses. “The breadth of programming Rob Gibson does, I mean that’s what I’m about as a musician, and have been for 30 years:

“This idea that there’s one thing called music, and whether it’s Indian classical, or European classical, or jazz or bluegrass, or chamber music, there’s a place where these things intersect musically. They intersect all over the place.

“And the things that keep them separated are usually social and political or whatever. The type of halls, or what you’re supposed to wear, or how you’re supposed to behave.

“The beauty of what Rob is doing is the way he makes everybody comfortable, from the musicians to various kinds of audience members. He just throws the umbrella nice and wide. I dreamed of festivals like that.”

Marshall is appearing this year as part of two separate and distinct trios. With Chris Thile (the former Nickel Creek wunderkind who blew everyone away at last year’s festival) and Caterina Lichtenberg, a well–known European classical player, he’ll present two shows of all–mandolin virtuosity, covering centuries of music and creativity.

Marshall’s other group, which he’s dubbed The Big Trio, includes Alex Hargreaves on violin, and standup bassist Paul Kowert. In their repertoire will be the debut of “Suite Savannah,” a three–movement Marshall composition commissioned by the festival.

As Marshall says in this interview, there are always – always – new discoveries to be made.

This will be your fourth appearance at this festival. Has this become a go–to–place for you – “Savannah, that’s gonna be cool”?

Mike Marshall: It really has, and I keep expecting that we’re going to run out of ideas, and then something happens over the course of the year and Rob goes “You know that thing you did? Let’s do that next year!” I’m thinking geez, am I gonna have to keep pulling these things out of the sky for him?

But it’s been a very natural progression of events. Very cool.

Rob’s skill is to develop an audience that, in the final analysis, trusts him, and his programming skills. That they’re going to come to see a group they’ve never heard of and say “Well, I got my mind blown last year, going to hear something I didn’t know anything about – let’s take another chance.”

I’m hearing a lot about Alex Hargreaves. He’s 18?

Mike Marshall: He just had his 18th birthday. He was playing like this at 15, and it’s really something to behold. He’s a miracle. He’s one of those guys that comes around every 50 years, I’m afraid. Just a phenomenal talent with gigantic ears. And taste. A lot of guys can play a lot of notes at that age, the sort of whiz kid phenomenon, but he’s so far beyond that. He’s a real musician, with really deep sensibilities.

How did he come into your orbit?

Mike Marshall: You know, when you’re that good, in this world, we hear about you early on! You can’t hide. I do this mandolin camp with David Grisman – he came to our camp, as a mandolin player, and then late at night there’d be these jams, and he’d grab the fiddle and it was just like, oh, dear God, what’s going on here?

I see the whiz kids with great hands and technical ability, but this kind of talent goes in the category of an Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck, Chris Thile level. And you know how many of those there are.

Did you immediately think, I’ve got to put something together with this guy?

Mike Marshall: Here’s what happened. Darrol Anger and I had a weekend–long gig in Boston, where we were playing for a meeting of Internet guys. It was kind of a bizarre gig at a really nice house. And Darrol broke his band in a bike accident a week before the gig.

So I frantically thought ‘What the hell am I gonna do?” I called Alex.

I knew Paul – and all the things I’m saying about Alex I would repeat about Paul, he’s the third coming on the bass – but I knew that over three days we’d have lots of time on our hands to hang out. To see what works.

We spent that weekend trying out different material. And it was so inspiring that I said “I have to do something.” So I began writing like crazy over the course of the next year, specifically for that project.

I flew them out, and we spent two weeks together at my house, just eating and playing together. Jogging every day. And just developing the music day and night.

And then we spent five days in the recording studio.

Is this the kind of thing where you’re thinking ‘I can’t wait to show this to people’?

Mike Marshall: Yeah, it’s that way because it has that effect: People go “What the hell? Where did you find these guys?” and “Why aren’t they in my band?” Of course, Jerry Douglas hired Alex right away, and Chris snapped up Paul for the Punch Brothers. So I’ve got to figure out how to keep them employed in my camp all the time.

When you see them, it’ll just be glorious to watch them. And I’m just glad I can say I got to play with them. It’s like “The young phenomena of the next century ... and their driver.”

I understand the Big Trio will be playing “Suite Savannah,” a piece you were commissioned to write specifically for the festival?

Mike Marshall: That’s right. Rob saw us and said to me “Hey, I’m crazy about what you’re doing with these guys. Why don’t I see if I can get somebody to step forward?” You know how good he is at matching up folks. He’s a whirlwind.

They came out to my house in January. We worked for a week on this three–movement piece. I’ll tweak it some more, and we’ll spend the week before the festival – we’ll be hanging out on the beach in Florida – working on the music.

Chris Thile has been a young phenomenon for something like 10 years now....

Mike Marshall: Yeah, he’s getting on becoming one of us old guys! He better watch it, because he, too, will become the driver if he’s not careful!

You’ve been playing with him for a while. Can you see a maturity in him in the way he approaches things?

Mike Marshall: Not really! I think he came out of the chute bustin’ and just full of energy and vigor, wanting to kick life and music in the behind. He has a tremendous sense of musicality, and an extremely big brain. And he’s kinda been able to thread that needle between super–intellectual music and a kind of pop aesthetic, and a performance style that’s engaging and slightly mysterious, but with a hint of down–home fun. And yet tons and tons of creativity. And that’s rare.

Tell me about Caterina.

Mike Marshall: She is, again, this unbelievable, phenomenal classical mandolinist. I’d been knowing about her for many years, but our paths hadn’t crossed. She comes from the German school of mandolin playing, which is very thorough and unbelievably precise. And deep in the tradition of the mandolin.

She’s taught me that our instrument actually does have a tradition in the classical world, and does go back 300 years, just like the violin.

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There’s all this repertoire, and all these techniques of cross–pickings that go back to France in the early baroque period. They were doing all these things!

Classical mandolin? I’ll admit that’s a new one for me.

Mike Marshall: The mandolin has gone in and out of serious, legitimate classical tradition, and then it would fade into a kind of quiet period where it would become a folk instrument again.

That’s exactly what happened when it came to America. The Gibson Company starts making what the Europeans consider to be very bizarre instruments. And there was this parlor music period, where the mandolin orchestras were really big – in the teens, up until about 1920.

But once the swing era hit, that fell out of favor. And these instruments ended up in pawn shops, and the hillbillies got ahold of them! It found its way into the folk world, and basically the whole century has been this progression of us working ourselves back out of that.

And now, you have it coming together again.

Mike Marshall

Savannah Music Festival 2010

Thursday, March 18:

Mike Marshall’s Big Trio/The Belleville Outlet. Shows at 6:30 and 9 p.m., Charles H. Morris Center, 10 E. Broad St.

Tickets are $37.

Wednesday, March 24:

Chris Thile, Mike Marshall and Caterina Lichtenberg. Shows at 6:30 and 8:30 p.m., Charles H. Morris Center, 10 E. Broad St. $37.