Go to any major bluegrass event and you're likely to see mandolinists Mike Marshall and Chris Thile up on the stage jamming with any number of musicians -- either with their own ensembles du jour or squeezing into all-star jams with the likes of Bela Fleck or Edgar Meyer.
Under those spotlights, the high-flying mandolin melodies fly easily above the solid grooves of Meyer's thundering double bass, and they're egged on along by the racing, melodic textures of Fleck's banjo.
So what's it like cutting CDs and touring when the only instruments on stage are two little mandolins, whose bass range is well short of even a guitar's deepest notes?
"It's a challenge. ... It's a beautiful challenge," Marshall says of his recent collaboration with Thile. The duo is touring the country promoting their recent Sugar Hill release and appearing at the Benet Hill Center Auditorium this Sunday, Dec. 21. "It's pretty daunting to take these little instruments and try to fill a concert hall with sound."
Anyone who has ever heard Marshall and Thile play knows that either of these guys can fill any room just playing solo. Arguably two of the best mandolinists in the world, these are the kind of musicians for which the term "virtuoso" was coined. It's not bluster -- it's just fact.
Consider the record: At age 12, Thile became the youngest person to win the National Mandolin Championship and, by 13, he released his first album. By 20, he released a CD called Not All Who Wander Are Lost, which featured Fleck, Meyer and dobro master Jerry Douglas. He went on to co-found the now-famous, Grammy-winning acoustic ensemble Nickel Creek.
For his part, Marshall came of age in the late '70s playing with The David Grisman Quintet. He went on to form the Modern Mandolin Quartet, which continued the Grisman-esque tradition of taking mandolin repertoire in as many eclectic and challenging directions as possible. Later, he co-founded Psychograss, another seminal all-star string band.
With chops like these, filling the Benet Hill Center with both beautiful sounds and lots of warm bodies should not be a problem. Likewise, their CD Into the Cauldron is a full and warm-sounding tour through jazz, Brazilian Choro, Baroque counterpoint, souped-up traditional fiddle tunes, improvisation and originals.
To my ears, the beauty of hearing Thile and Marshall take on the challenge of playing these pieces in a mandolin duet is twofold. The pairing provides enough of an accompaniment to keep the tunes grooving, while the stripped-down sound exposes the counterpoint, melody and harmony in all their delicate, intricate detail.
"There are places where I'm just playing bass lines," Marshall says, "or I'm just trying to accent with stop-hits like the brass section would do in a jazz band. There are different ways you try and learn how play different parts, just like it was our own little band."
That "little band" is at its best exploring tunes such as "Desvairada," a song penned by Garoto, a multi-instrumentalist and legendary Brazilian composer of Choros, a folk blend of European, African and indigenous influences. The tune's lively, difficult arpeggios and lightning-fast triplets -- steeped in the rich tones of Brazil's musical melting pot -- highlight the duo's ability to expose interesting, underlying harmonies all the while creating a fluid, tuneful whole.
The amazing thing about hearing them play "Desvairada" or seeing the two pick live is how relaxed, effortless, soulful and joyful they make these difficult performances feel. From the traditional "Fisher's Hornpipe" to the Thile original "Stranded in Kodiak," the songs on this CD develop from pretty ditties or interesting counterpoint into raging jams that never lose sight of the original tune. You'll end up whistling along -- at least until your tongue gets tied into a knot trying to keep up.
This easy, relaxed, swinging feel doesn't come easy, however. "The attack [of the pick on string] on a mandolin is very unforgiving," Marshall said. "When you've got two mandolins you've got to really nail each note. If you don't, there's sort of this pad-dunk of the two notes."
One of the CD's best blends of precision and just plain prettiness is found in Marshall and Thile's version of Bach's First Goldberg Variation, the second cut on Into the Cauldron. The mandolins bring all the light, airy articulation of the harpsichord, but with the expressiveness and flow that comes with a hand-picked instrument.
Thile and Marshall pick out all of Bach's intertwining voices in wonderful detail, but there's an improvisational ease that makes it wonderfully musical and flat-out fun -- not the kind of music-box, tick-tock feel found in so many recordings of Bach's music.
In short, expect great music from two of America's greatest players and improvisers. If you have any money left at this point in the holiday season, spend it wisely. See this show.
Mike Marshall and Chris Thile
Sun., Dec. 21, 7:30 p.m.
Benet Hill Center Auditorium, 2577 Chelton Road
$23 general public, $18 Black Rose Acoustic Society members; 495-9654.